From Catherine Harry, who creates video clips addressing women’s issues normally seen as taboo for public discussion, to Kounila Keo, who was named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 after rising to fame via her blog exploring societal issues in a women’s context, Cambodia today boats a new generation of women smashing the traditional, male-dominated power structures.
They join a long line of Cambodian women whose impact on the Kingdom and its culture throughout history is immense.
Ask an old timer about the story of Yeay Penh, or “Grandmother Penh”, and they might recall the story of an average woman who was able to galvanize people through speech, and who was behind the construction of one of the city’s most revered and visited landmarks, Wat Phnom.
As the story goes, sometime in the 14th century, Yeay Penh found four Buddha statues in a tree trunk floating down the Mekong River. She gathered a posse to raise the mound that now juts out of Phnom Penh city at the top of Norodom Boulevard, and they built a stupa to house the statues. That hill, or phnom, is credited with giving the modern day capital of Cambodia its name.
Rewind another 200 years and find another wildly influential Cambodian woman – Queen Indradevi, the wife of the famed King Jayavarman VII. With her husband ruling over the Khmer Empire when it was at its most powerful point in history, Queen Indradevi was a noted scholar, poet and teacher who promoted women and encouraged them to follow her along the path to education and empowerment. She is credited with holding together the Kingdom at times when her husband was away at war.
While the influence of Cambodian matriarchs seemed to fade over the ensuing centuries, today’s women leaders are taking every step to become as influential and remembered as those that came before them.
By harnessing and mastering technology, Catherine Harry, Kounila Keo and a cast of contemporaries have taken the struggles and achievements of Cambodian women to the world. And at the rate they are going, it might not be long before they take over.