Problems in the Family, Problems in Society, Problems with Illiteracy: Gender and Class in Mid-20th-Century Cambodia

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Catriona Miller, University of WisconsinMadison
My gender analysis of mid-twentieth century Cambodia examines how diverging urban and rural experiences of women’s rights and citizenship intensified urban/rural power dynamics in Cambodian society. In order to explore this hypothesis, my poster puts forth two questions, “What was the relationship between urban women and rural women and how did discourses on women’s rights shape that relationship? Why and how did citizenship strengthen class and gender based relationships of power?” Historian Joan Scott theorizes that that gender is a historically constructed social element useful for illuminating relationships of power in different social processes, including class and race. Employing a gender analysis that draws upon this theory, my poster will analyze women’s organizations and publications alongside government programs from late and post-colonial Cambodia to argue that emphases on the rights and responsibilities of women further intensified the power differentials between urban and rural populations.

In late colonial and post-colonial Cambodia, urban-based women’s associations created spaces for discussions about women’s issues, as well as avenues for women to contribute to civil society projects. Beginning in 1948, the Khmer Women’s Organization published Ladies Magazine to address the perceived tensions between modern women and women with proclivities for “ancient traditions.” While the KWA was interested in establishing gender-focused discussions, the content of the magazine suggests that it was accessible to mostly urban women. After independence in 1953, new women’s organizations sought to be more inclusive of all women, but power imbalances between different social classes continued. While one women’s organization, the Khmer Women’s Friendship Association, emphasized that constitutional rights for women had not translated into the diminishment of problems women faced in society, one of the main goals of the organization included teaching uneducated women how to implement their rights as citizens, suggesting that there was little motivation to create a relationship of equality amongst women of different classes and geographical spaces.

This trend within women’s organizations emerged alongside government discourses promoting the responsibilities of female citizens. In 1955, women were granted equal rights in the constitution, and Prince Sihanouk established the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community) to transform the country of 5 million people into a prosperous nation of 20 million citizens. The duties of women became synonymous with strengthening the country. Publications aimed at the rural population focused on the seriousness of citizenship, and countryside women were targeted in “basic education” programs that promoted hygiene, disease prevention, and modern childcare methods. Critically, the urban-centric negotiations about women’s rights and responsibilities permeated the countryside in the form of education and reform. To that end, the focus on female citizenship manifested into new hierarchical relationships.

By exploring discourses amongst and for women in mid-twentieth century Cambodia, this presentation will consider how governmental and civil society efforts to draw attention to women contributed to divisions between the urban center and rural provinces. In a wider context, this history is critical for considering the societal divisions and mutual forms of mistrust that developed leading up to the civil war in 1970.

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