Classes are underway at the Cambodian Islamic Center in Kandal province, and at the nearby Al Rahmani mosque, a group of female students waited for their instructor on a recent day.
It is not by chance that the classroom was empty of men. Here, young women and girls are separated from their male classmates, in a bid to help them study, officials say.
“It is common that female and male students have love relationships, and this makes it difficult for us to control,” said Pich Solin, director of the Islamic Center’s secular studies.
Segregation helps earn the trust of parents and helps students concentrate on their studies, he said.
Cambodia has around 500,000 Muslims, many of whom are descendants of a lost kingdom in today’s Vietnam. Over the decades, they have lived side-by-side with their Khmer neighbors, but Muslim leaders maintain traditions in schools like the Islamic Center, underscoring the difference in cultures.
The Islamic Center has strict rules regarding relationships between its students.
“They don’t allow us to sit in the same class [with boys], as we may woo each other,” a shy, 15-year-old girl named You Sali said. This is for the best, she said.
The center has around 200 female students, who leave their homes across the country to study here, 20 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. Nearby, on the main grounds of the Islamic Center, 500 male students undertake secular and religious courses.
Kimri Safert, 18, said he wanted to study in a classroom with female students.
“I want to, but how can I if the tradition won’t allow it?” he asked with a sigh.
Nos Sles, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, said the separation of students does not affect quality of education.
“They just put female students in one place and male students in another, but the curriculum is the same,” he said.
Still, some students look forward to a day when they can mingle in a classroom.
Kimri Safert, a male student at the center, said he must wait three more years to graduate the school. “Then I will go to university with mixed sexes.”