Musings on Patriarchy

Most (all?) societies on this planet could be described as patriarchal and they many of the same elements in common, but it is likely that Patriarchy also manifests itself in unique ways from culture to culture. From my measly quotidian experience of two years in Cambodian, here are some things I’ve noticed can be said to constitute it as a patriarchally dominated culture, including ways that differentiate it from other patriarchal cultures. This is a brief, general list, just things that are rolling around in the ol’ noggin.


It is apparent the world over that labor is almost always sexed. This means that some work is “women’s work” and some “men’s work”. This is often true of Cambodia, too, but another interesting, seemingly benign effect of the patriarchy on labor demographics has to do with age. In spite of all the “respect your elders” rhetoric one hears around the Kingdom, there is an awful lot of ageism going on. This means that, once you reach a certain age, you might find it very difficult to attain certain types of jobs– or even any job at all. People may expect you to retire. They may treat you like you’re slow-witted or fragile. It’s meant well, I’m sure, and of course some people really do slow down in their old age. But it’s quite mythological that old people are sought out for their wisdom and this and that; at some point, many old people here simply become spectators to the lives of the young. With the emphasis on families (especially having many children, in some instances), it’s not so surprising that the elderly are even expected to live vicariously through their children and grandchildren– even when they’re lively, even when they still have their own ambitions.

Ageism is frequently an intrinsic part of Patriarchy; only the young, fit, and virile may be successful, competitive. This is in part from where our drive to remain “forever young” is derived. To show one’s age is to show weakness, or even worse, uselessness and dependency. Yes, the words of your [male] elders may be respected, but probably not heeded. In a world of endless competition, one cannot afford to be cautious. The old may learn from life’s lessons and try to impart them to their successors, but it’s the young who “seize the day”. To this end, countless cosmetics, health foods, surgeries, and so forth have been created as a kind of fountain of youth, that we may put off “showing our age” for as long as humanly possible. Wrinkles and grey hair are repulsive and pathetic, not a sign of a life long lived.


Although both men and women in Cambodia have limited options in sexuality, women definitely get the short end of this stick. For while it is noted and even tolerated that men may be straight/cisgender or queer, women are “only” straight. I often find it odd that, for as homophobic mainstream Cambodian culture can be, female-to-male (FTM) transgender folk and gay guys get talked about with a certain frequency, whilst the subject of gay women is mysteriously absent. It’s sort of like the old Syrian proverb, “There are no gays here.” Well, no gay women anyway.

I’m told (by foreigners) that gay men in Cambodia are “acceptable” on some level, that Buddhism approaches them as souls who were put in the “wrong” body, and thus we should respect them, or at least feel sorry for them. However, I have encountered rampant homophobia, bordering on violence (or at least threats of violence), concerning gay men. It is the polite thing to do to pretend it doesn’t exist, and people start to get angry if they can’t do just that. Of course, there are plenty of people who simply don’t care one way or another, are willing to live and let live, as it were. LGBTQ allies, however, are few and far between Cambodia has a very quiet (mainly male, largely foreign) LGBTQ scene. I imagine that as this community grows more vocal and (hopefully) more accepted in the future, they will also gain more allies.

Also, women never have sex before marriage here. Unless they are broken.


Cambodian families, like families anywhere, vary greatly. It would be unfair to say that all Cambodian men are heads of households or that all Cambodian women experience some sort of DV or discrimination by another family member. The statistics do point out some alarming commonalities, however, which can often be correlated with education levels. For instance, in families where women have low levels of literacy, those women are more likely to remain marginalized within their families and their communities (limited in resources, decision-making power, opportunities, etc.), and also to disadvantage their female children.

In general, there is a majority of male-headed households. There are many female-headed households, however, arising from many factors: during Khmer Rouge, many people lost their spouses, families broke up… Polygamy, though subtle and not prevalent, is still practiced in Cambodia, and often the man is only listed as HOH in one of his two families, thus skewing perception of actual HOHs. “Can women marry more than one man?” I have asked this, and been laughed at, whereas polygamy seems more normalized (dependent on the location). It’s technically illegal…but hell, a lot of things are “technically illegal” here.


In the city, school appears to be more egalitarian, at least on the surface. Nearly equal numbers of male and female children receive k-12 education, but the number of women enrolled in university is less than men in almost all fields, and is significantly less with each successive level. Thus, most people graduating from undergraduate are men (though female students are slowly gaining), and almost no women obtain Masters degrees, PhDs, etc.

In the countryside, though, girls remain noticeably disadvantaged. Large numbers of boys and girls seem to drop out in grades 4 and 9, but fewer girls ever begin school, and more girls than boys tend to drop out, so by the end, fewer girls are graduating from high school– in fact, many girls never complete even a single year of high school. There are lots of reasons why girls drop out of school. Some reasons of people I know personally are: a family member falls ill; getting married and starting a family; staying home to help with chores or business. Another reason that really gets me is that girls are often pulled from school (especially higher education) to fund their brothers’ schooling. Even if it’s a younger brother, male education often takes priority over female education. I don’t often hear that people believe women are not as intelligent as men, but that men can find jobs more easily, are able to travel more widely, and generally have more freedoms that would be enhanced by an education, versus women. Who should stay home. Yeah.

Those were just some things on my mind… Things I tend to ponder often. How does patriarchy manifest itself in your life?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s