Khmer Women on the Move

Khmer Women on the Move: Exploring Work and Life in Urban Cambodia

Annuska Derks
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  • Book Info
    Khmer Women on the Move
    Book Description:

    Khmer Women on the Move offers a fascinating ethnography of young Cambodian women who move from the countryside to work in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Female migration and urban employment are rising, triggered by Cambodia’s transition from a closed socialist system to an open market economy. This book challenges the dominant views of these young rural women—that they are controlled by global economic forces and national development policies or trapped by restrictive customs and Cambodia’s tragic history. The author shows instead how these women shape and influence the processes of change taking place in present-day Cambodia. Based on field research among women working in the garment industry, prostitution, and street trading, the book explores the complex interplay between their experiences and actions, gender roles, and the broader historical context. The focus on women involved in different kinds of work allows new insight into women’s mobility, highlighting similarities and differences in working conditions and experiences. Young women’s ability to utilize networks of increasing size and complexity allows them to move into and between geographic and social spaces that extend far beyond the village context. Women’s mobility is further expressed in the flexible patterns of behavior that young rural women display when trying to fulfill their own "modern" aspirations along with their family obligations and cultural ideals.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6323-4
    Subjects: Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Like many people, the main images I had of Cambodia before I first arrived in the country in 1995 were those of Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. Not surprisingly, like most of the literature, news reports and films tend to focus on the splendor of Angkor, which symbolizes the glory of the country’s past, and on the horrors of the Killing Fields, which evoke more generally the tragedy of Cambodia’s modern history. History, it seems, is a central theme in the way the country is portrayed. This attention focused on Cambodia’s past is also manifest in the labels of...

  5. 2 Rice People in the City
    (pp. 21-36)

    A “mixture of Asian exotica” and the “gateway to an exotic land”—this is how Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, is portrayed on the Web site of its municipality. Phnom Penh is now, we can read on the same Web site, “within the midst of rapid change” similar to that taking place in other Asian cities. Although such associations may recall images of high-rise office buildings, flyovers, traffic jams, shopping malls, bright lights and signs promoting the products of an endless diversity of small-to-big businesses within Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta,...

  6. 3 Women, Ideals, and Migration
    (pp. 37-58)

    Discussions about gender in Cambodian society have confusingly pointed to male dominance, the relative equality and complementarity of men and women, and the “high status” and “considerable authority” of women (C. Zimmerman 1994; Ebihara 1968; Martin 1994; Népote 1992). Although these statements appear incompatible, they can all be true and reflect above all the complexity of gender constructs within Cambodian—or in fact any—society.¹ Therefore, as Ledgerwood (1990: 19) points out, we should get away from a fixed view onthestatus of men and women, gender and sexuality, because they are symbolic constructs assigned various meanings in different...

  7. 4 Factory Work
    (pp. 59-87)

    Tuol Sangkeo, Phnom Penh, on a Tuesday morning around half past six: thousands of young female workers fill the streets leading to a range of factories to disappear again through the small, guarded factory gates. Some wear identifiable clothes, such as the gray Sam Han T-shirt, the purple polo shirt of the factory around the corner, the blue headscarves of Rho Sing jeans factory, or the blue-striped blouses worn in a shoe factory down the road. Others are dressed in wide trousers and blouses, fashionable in the countryside, or in a more urban style, with jeans, long skirts with high-heeled...

  8. 5 Sex Work
    (pp. 88-118)

    Tuol Kork is one of the infamous red-light districts in Phnom Penh. Sex workers with white-powdered faces, red lips, tight jeans, short skirts and tops sit or stand in the doorways of the wooden shacks that are lined up along the main road. With gestures, sweet words and teasing remarks they invite passing men on bicycles, on motorbikes, or in cars to come in. The lights, loud music and bustling traffic add to a mishmash of colors and sounds. When I started my fieldwork the main road was dirt and full of potholes creating chaotic situations when trucks, pull-carts, motorbikes...

  9. 6 Street Trade
    (pp. 119-141)

    The sounds, smells, colors, tastes and bustle of city life in Phnom Penh owe much to the activities of traders vending their products in markets, small shops, stalls, and on the streets and sidewalks. Already by early morning, calls ofnumpan(bread) can be heard in the quiet streets as vendors with baskets full of fresh bread cycle through the city. By then, small breakfast places also appear at the sides of streets sellingbobo(rice porridge),baay-moan(rice with chicken), orkuy-tiew(noodle soup). The stalls disappear when urban residents start work, but a whole range of snacks, meals...

  10. 7 City Life and Modern Experience
    (pp. 142-169)

    For many young Cambodian women who come from the “rice field,” Phnom Penh is, to use Chambers’ formulation, the “chosen metaphor for the experience of the modern world” (1994: 92). This modern urban world is very different from that of their rural background. Although the urban and the rural are not, and probably have never been, isolated separate spaces, the stories of fellow villagers who work and live in Phnom Penh, as well as the images of urban life and people that reach the countryside through television and other mass media, bring the city closer than ever to the world...

  11. 8 Dutiful Daughters, Broken Women
    (pp. 170-197)

    Kurt Weill’s operaThe Seven Deadly Sins¹ tells the story of Anna, who works as a dancer in order to earn money for her family’s eagerly desired new house. As she moves from one American city to another, she struggles not to commit the seven deadly sins or to give in to her own desires and thereby frustrate her efforts to save money. Her personality is split between Anna I, who is rational and determined to reach her goal, and Anna II, who is inclined to follow her own feelings and desires, thus endangering the new family house.

    The story...

  12. 9 Conclusion: Moving Women, Moving Selves
    (pp. 198-206)

    Having traced young Khmer women’s experiences with migration, employment and urban life, the remaining question is how these can be placed in the context of the theoretical principles discussed in the Introduction. For example, what does the story of Sophea tell us about the way Khmer women deal with structures of inequity, experience “modernity,” or play what Ortner called “serious games”? Sophea is one of the many young Khmer women who have left their villages in their desire to earn money for themselves in the more eventful city. Her urban career unequivocally shows the kinds of jobs in which young,...

    (pp. 207-212)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 213-226)
    (pp. 227-230)
    (pp. 231-250)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 251-258)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-263)