PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Shortly after midnight each Sunday, Catherine Harry takes her place in front of a camera at her home in Phnom Penh.
As the city soundscape of chanting monks, temple bells, jackhammers and traffic quieten she goes to work on “A Dose of Cath”, her popular vlog tackling the gender taboos that still pervade her native Cambodia.
“Women, unlike men, rely on a wide variety of factors to raise their sexual desires,” Harry said to camera as she opened a forthcoming episode on women’s libido.
“It is important to check with your partner from time to time, establishing ongoing consent, to make sure that she is comfortable with the experience.”
At 25, Harry is chief messenger for a movement shaking off the legacy of the Chbap Srey, an oppressive code of conduct for women that was only removed from primary school curricula in 2007.
The code instructs women to walk slowly and laugh quietly. It extols obedience and submission and dictates that women “serve” husbands and never discuss family issues outside the home.
It takes the form of a poem and is thought to have originated in the 14th century before being passed down orally through the generations until it was put in writing 500 years later.
“It legitimises domestic violence and violence against women,” Harry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. “And it has been deeply ingrained in a lot of people’s minds.”
A self-professed introvert, Harry takes on a bold persona in “A Dose of Cath”, which challenges conservative Cambodia by tackling topics still seen by many as taboo.
The episode on libido follows others titled Know Your Vulva, Let’s Talk Period, and Is Masturbation Bad? – topics she said were near impossible to learn about elsewhere in the local Khmer language.
“In Cambodia, sex is taboo,” she said. “People don’t talk about it … I’m trying to give them a source on these things without having to learn about it from porn.”
‘CULTURE IS NOT STATIC’
In a nation of 16 million people, Harry’s most popular offerings get upwards of 2 million views.
And while Cambodia’s young population is increasingly educated, the women’s movement remains 50 years behind the rest of the world, Harry said, held back by what she called “old-school feminists” who see the world through the lens of Chbap Srey.
“They are from the generation that wasn’t very critical of society, of the institution, so it kind of makes sense,” Harry said, explaining how she was labelled “too extreme” by supposed allies after denouncing the code in her vlog.
“Not many people want to be in my position,” she said of challenging the status quo. “I have lost a number of friends.”
While the code was banned from schools more than a decade ago, elements of it still pervade the education system, sometimes in disguise, Harry said, including in the textbook for a personal development class she took.
“We had to learn what it’s like to be a good wife … the characteristics of a good woman, how you should please your husband,” she said.
“It has become a part of our society and it’s extremely dangerous.”
Last year, the United Nations reiterated calls for the code to be “fully eliminated” from schools, labelling it a “root cause of the disadvantaged position of women”.
One well-known Khmer proverb goes: women, like white cloth, are easily soiled, while men, like gems, can be polished anew.
One in five men in a 2013 UN survey said they had raped a woman.
More recently, singers and actresses have been accused by government officials of disrespecting Cambodian culture by wearing revealing outfits. Some have been banned from performing.
“People keep spilling out the word culture when they want to police someone’s body,” Harry said.
“But what do they really know about our culture? Culture is not static. Like technology, it changes all the time.”
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD; Editing by Claire Cozens. Credit to Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.)