Last night the girls had a party. They spent days preparing, hours cooking and forever anticipating the event. There was a huge spread of fragrant curry, sticky noodles and crispy baguette slices to be topped off by mounds of garnishes like Thai basil and beansprouts. They somehow procured speakers and hooked them up to a laptop from whence they blasted the songs of youtube videos far into the night. Many dormitory alumni came back for the affair and all the girls made little speeches about who they are and what they dream to become. The sweetest thing about the evening is that everyone was in such a tizzy applying make-up and outfitting themselves in their smartest dresses. Eye shadow was passed around and necklaces were shared in every room. No one really went anywhere and the only people there were the girls but they all wanted to look their very best for the occasion. Armed with a plate of curry I plopped down next to one of them and told her how cute she looked. She grinned, very pleased with her efforts. Then she said “but we can't wear this outside, it is dangerous. I look too sexy, don't I?” Not quite sure what to say I chirped something noncommittal about her outfit of longish yellow shorts and a big oxford shirt. Our conversation was then cut short by the thumping of the bass and calls to dance. As the music alternated between Khmer favorites and Western pop hits, the moon rose a high and white sliver overhead. The hot jungle air was filled with exhilaration as the girls flailed themselves, occasionally in rhythm, to the beat. Everyone was grinning and no one was sitting down. Their love of dance was palpable and they laughed as they held hands and grooved. I asked one of the girls “do you like to dance?” And obvious assent was followed by a saddening clause. “Yes, but we cannot dance outside.” This is something I already knew but the night's joy made me even sadder than when I considered this fact previously.
In Cambodia there are Good Girls and Bad Girls. There is no in between. The Good Girls study hard, go to sleep early and remain chaste. The Bad Girls wear short skirts, go to night clubs and flirt with hoary, pot-bellied Western men. All the girls in the dorm are keenly aware of this and have chosen the life path of Good Girl. While I think that is awesome, I find it tragic that this means that they'll never know what it is to dance like no one is watching outside their circle of sisters. I'm not saying that going to clubs is important. It's not. I could do with fewer nightclubs frankly. But it's the option that matters. The fact that the public sphere belongs to men with their tendencies to grope, hassle and worse is truly tragic. It is wonderful that these girls have a safe space in which to express themselves but utterly sad that it must exist because outside of it is a dangerous domain where dancing in a short skirt is a clear invitation to rape. In further evidence of this culturalized sexism, the accepted view here is that women wait until marriage to have sex. Men cannot possibly be expected to do this so they openly and freely sleep with hookers in flea-addled guest houses. I wish my girls had the options to decide if they want to be sexually active or not. I wish they did not have to be considered whores if they make the decision to experiment with someone they love. Being able to make mistakes and come back from them is hugely character building but unfortunately mistakes are not something these girls are permitted.
But again we get to the fact that this is their culture and I still struggle as to whether I want to “fix” it or not. Undoubtedly being a Western woman comes with it's own complications; if living this way means that these girls don't have to deal with pregnancy scares or alcohol poisoning then how could I say who is the more liberated? But coming from a culture where we adore pregnant Beyonce singing about being the female version of a hustler, it's hard to not compare when the two worlds are so very different. Last night was wonderful but it was hard to see the beauty of their nighttime joy without considering the harsh light of the choices they will never be allowed to make.