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Cham Muslim Women Seek More Rights

Mann Fitas is a 43-year-old Cambodian Muslim living in the capital’s Russey Keo district. She has a husband and five children, and, like many Cham women, she is not satisfied with the role her gender plays in her religion.

“In strict Islamic law, wives do not have the right to work outside the house,” she said in a recent interview. “We are just allowed to raise children and look after the house, that’s it.”

Visits outside the home, even to visit relatives, must be conducted by permission, and when a marriage sours, she said, a woman has little recourse.

“No matter how angry a woman is with her husband, she cannot say, ‘I divorce you,’” Mann Fitas said. “We can only complain to the [imam]. But the right to divorce is entitled to the husband.”

Islamic law and the Quran are meant to have women and men compliment each other, said Matt Islamiyas, a university student in Phnom Penh. But in reality, she said, there are still some advantages for men.

“Talking about inheritance, a daughter gets only half of a son’s share,” she said. “In Kupol [the most important ritual in wedding], only men are allowed [to make a decision].”

Sons receive a larger inheritance because a man is expected to support a family after marriage. In a wedding, the bride’s father pays a dowry and hands his daughter over to her groom. If the bride’s father is not present, he is replaced by a brother or male relative, not her mother.

Men are given more weight as witnesses than women, too. Two witnesses in the wedding must be men, unless none are available. In that case, women can stand in as a witness, but there must be twice as many.

Sos Mousine, secretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, acknowledged a disparity among women and men in Islamic law but said it did not add up to discrimination.

“For example, a woman cannot be an imam leading a mosque, because, biologically, she menstruates, so this is already inequality,” he said.

“As far as Islam is concerned,” said Kop Mariyas, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Women Affairs, “reasons are normally not explained, because everything is already set and we just obey it, that’s all.”

The rights of women Cambodia’s Muslim women have improved, she said, and more and more Muslim girls are now attending school, with some even continuing to higher education.

Kop Mariyas, who is also the secretary-general of the Cambodian Islamic Women’s Development Association, noted that Islamic law and customs are not strictly practiced in Cambodia. There are also organizations that can help women achieve more, she said.

Meanwhile, there are Cham women who don’t fit the mold.

So Farina, a Cham project team leader at Documentation Centre of Cambodia, is currently studying for her master’s at the University of Ohio. She said in a recent e-mail that the rights of Cham women suffer because men have more power in decision-making.

“The community must empower women so that they can move forward,” she said.