Editor’s note: In the face of modernization and democratization, there is a rise of young Cambodian women across all sectors in Cambodia. A renowned American artist and writer, Anne Elizabeth Moore, wrote two books about Cambodian women: The Cambodian Grrrl and New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia. Moore, a feminist writer and artist, spent about four months living and working with young Cambodian women in a dormitory in Phnom Penh. She recently spoke to VOA Khmer in Washington via phone.
What brought you to Cambodia and how did your two-book projects about Cambodian girls come about?
I became interested in Cambodia after […] you know, I grew up in the United States, of course, and I began self-publishing myself when I was 11 years old. It was sort of a natural response of growing up in very over-mediated environment where TV, even breakfast cereal, toys, and games and everything, was trying to sell me something. And my response to that was to basically create a media entity that was a young girl’s respond to this over-commercialized, constant messaging about how I should be and what I should look like.
And I had been doing that since the 1980s, until 2007. And I had been running a magazine in the last days of 2007. And we decided to close the magazine down, and I was very frustrated. It was a magazine called Punk Planet. I was very frustrated, because it was a lot of people who had been doing self-publishing for a long time. And the United States is supposed to be this great place for democracy to happen. And the fact that we couldn’t, all of a sudden, put this magazine out anymore because government regulations had changed enough so that we no longer were able to put it out at the scale that we had been doing for, at that point, 12 years.
And I just felt that democracy had failed me, and so I began looking at other places around the world where democracy wasn’t accepted as one thing, and of course, in Cambodia, that was, the No. 1 thing at the time, in 2007, the No. 1 question was: What does democracy mean in a place where there isn’t always freedom of the press, where it’s not assumed that you are going to be able to get accurate information from, you know, TV or print media? So I was at first drawn to Cambodia as a site of interest, but then once I found out about a dormitory for young women to go to college for the first time, I started communicating with them and some administrators there, and they invited me to come and stay with them and do a self-publishing project.
Your book started with the curiosity about Chbap Srei, a kind of Cambodian handbook for young women. How did you learn about Chbap Srei?
Yes, well I was lucky to be living in a dormitory with 32 young women who had just moved to Phnom Penh for the first time. And in most cases, there may be two or three young women that were from Battambang or Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. But really for the most part, the majority of the 32 young women who I was living with were from the provinces, and they all had known about Chbap Srei. They all had copies of it on their desks. And they all were really, really well aware that this document existed, which sort of outlined a set of social rules for girls. And they told me about it. But then of course, as I started to travel throughout the country and met with other expats who were working especially in social services, it was something that expats working in Cambodia and expats working in Cambodia had known about for a while and their view was different from mine. They were a little bit more alarmed about what the content was.
How would you describe your book in general?
Well, I think Cambodian Grrl came out, and it was very well received. It won a number of awards, and people were very excited about it. I still get weekly emails from readers who just fell in love with the book and the young women that I was working with. But also I think to some degree, they fell in love with the idea that you could go someplace and you could offer a very small skill to a group of people that would find it so useful and interesting.
In many ways, that is flattering, but in many ways it is also a big problem especially right now when we have a very particular kind of imperialism, where white people are sort of taking credit for a lot of things that are happening out there around the world, especially in developing nations. So the point of New Girl Law then was to actually say that: Yes, I did this and I was working with these young Cambodian women. But what I brought to them was secondary to what they did with it. The story of New Girl Law in particular is an attempt to explain how little I really did as a white woman from America coming to Cambodia with 32 young women in Cambodia who actually knew their culture, what they needed out of a demand for gender equity in media far better than I would. So that was the purpose of putting that book out.
In New Girl Law, there are new 20 drafted laws about Chbap Srei, indicating changes in young Cambodian women’s attitudes. How would you describe these changes? How do you see the position of these young women in today’s Cambodian society?
Well, the first thing is that I think I was very lucky to come to Cambodia in 2007, to really spend a significant amount of time there every year for the last seven years, to really be able to watch Cambodia, especially Cambodian young women, grow, and especially the Cambodian young women that I got to work with, during the greatest period of economic development that Cambodia has ever seen. And watching these young women go from enthusiasm about their country and their futures and their possibility, to really in the real world, you know, struggling with questions of what they want as individuals, as mothers, what they are interested in doing for their career, and why Cambodia maybe isn’t a place to support them in that yet. I am just privileged to be able to see all that. But as far as, do I think that we’ve really come to the point where women’s issues have been fully addressed in Cambodia? No. I think there is a lot more of work to do, of course. But at this point, my role is to be resource for those struggles.
Do you think of the changes of women’s attitudes as “resistance” to the norms and traditions that many old Cambodian people have been strongly held, as opposed to their role in protecting their culture?
Well, for one thing, Sreinith, I would ask you that question. Do those rules seem workable to you? If not, what do you want them to be? And the reason that I would put it that way is that the women that I was working with—and I just had dinner with them in February, and it was the first time I really was able to have a reunion, and caught up after seven years, and really talk about the way some of this stuff emerged in our lives—they were very, and are today, invested in maintaining traditional roles for women on one hand but also in developing further opportunities for their own economic security and eradicating many of domestic violence issues, and just opening up more opportunities for them.
So they felt like these 20 rules that they drafted under the New Girl Law did both of those things. But I think for a young Cambodian woman, especially ones working in media, such as yourself, would have a much better idea than I would whether or not that is true. And it’s hard to negotiate both of those things at the same time.
But also for the young Cambodian women that I was working with in 2007, their No. 1 rule was to be patient. It was absolutely: be patient and stay strong and be feminine and all of these amazing ways that they wanted to start to push Cambodian culture were all rooted in the understanding of what a traditional Cambodian feminine role looked like.
There are very few books written about Cambodian women. There are three academic books looking at sex trafficking, migration of young Cambodian women from rural areas to the cities for factory work, and history of Cambodian women in politics. How do you think your book is different from them?
Yes, I did a literary overview as I was researching, of course, the project and the books themselves, which came several years after the original project. Yes, I was shocked when there weren’t very many, especially when there is such a keen interest in sex work in Cambodia and in the garment trade in the United States.
I was just so lucky to live with these young Cambodian women, who are open and excited to have come to the city from all over the provinces. I do feel that I was given a very unique opportunity to get to know young women on new turf but also on their own terms. And I feel like my work in Cambodia is very much rooted in my experiences there, you know, as a white person for sure, and as an American young woman from the cultural underground of Chicago, definitely. But also as someone who was beholden to a group of 32 young women, from the second I stepped out of the plane, to respect their culture and try to understand what they wanted and needed from their future. And I think that sociologists and other, you know, activists and other ways of approaching culture, just produce different kinds of work. But as an immersion journalist, and as an investigative reporter, my number one job is to listen. And I feel like that’s what those two books are about, in particular was just me really trying to listen and trying to relay their stories and needs and desires in a language that people back home in the US would understand.
Could you tell us what would you want the world to learn about these young Cambodian women through your book?
In 2007 when I wrote this book, if I had known that eventually it would be possible for a young woman from Cambodia working in the media to call me up and want to have a conversation about it, I probably would not have written it. I would have just waited, right. Because the reason that my book exists, The Cambodian Grrl and the New Girl Law is to try to argue that that future should take place. And I have no idea whether or not it was helpful or instructive in that. But I know that the young women that I was working with, some of whom do work in the media and some of whom work in other areas, have all become strong owners of their own voices. And my hope is that those would be heard and respected in their own rights.
Do you have a plan for this book to be translated into Khmer so that it can reach the larger Cambodian audience?
I would very much like to. We have been talking about various translations in various Asian languages for several years, but we haven’t actually found a way to do that yet. I know that for a while, there was a young woman who was translating Cambodian Grrl in Mandarin on her own. And so there might be bootleg copies at least in Mandarin available somewhere. But we haven’t found the way to have it translated yet into Khmer. So anyone who is interested in doing that should get in touch with me then, we can totally make that happen.
Do you have anything to say to the girls whom you worked with and Cambodian girls and women who may listen to you right now?
I just love them. You know, young Cambodian women are just in a unique place. I think the relationship between young Cambodian women and women in the United States is pretty unique. Our two nations have this terrible, war-torn history as well as this continued economic disadvantage that the US just takes the garment production that is 70 percent what your factories are producing. And it is just so disgusting, and that is so the foundation on which all American and Cambodian relationships are set, and that is just really hard to get around that. But to then spend time with young Cambodian women over the years, and I’ve also gone back to teach in colleges and done other projects with young women around the country, and I literally love young Cambodian women like with all of my heart because they tend to be the kindest and sweetest and funniest people that I have ever worked with. So if they ever need anything or if you need anything, Sreinith, then just let me know.
I am honored to talk to you. I literally feel that I have been waiting for seven years to speak to a young Cambodian woman journalist, so thank you so much.
The exciting part is that we are now at a place where young Cambodian women are reading this book, and they are emailing me and calling me about it. I literally don’t care about the awards when that kind of stuff happens, and that is so much more exciting to me.