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Washed Clean

The Gospel undermines the devaluation of Cambodian women

My name is Muylen Orng, and God has called me to serve the women of Cambodia by bringing them a message of biblical equality. My journey began when I was very young, when God placed in me the dream of going to college. I was born and raised in Kompong Thom Province, in central Cambodia, north of the capital, Phnom Penh. I am one of three siblings, and the second daughter in my family. Most Cambodian women do not attend college, but when I finished high school in 2002, I asked my parents for permission to continue studying at a university in Phnom Penh. (In my culture, it is important to have the approval of your family and relatives before making major decisions.)

When my relatives found out what I wanted, the great majority did not approve. They felt that I would be putting myself at risk if I went Phnom Penh to study. Sex trafficking is a big problem there, and it can be a dangerous place for a young woman without a support network. Since we had no close relatives there, I would be on my own, and my relatives feared I might meet bad people who would take advantage of me. They told my parents not to allow me to continue my studies at college. This was very hard for me, because the opinion of your relatives cannot just be ignored. I felt hopeless. So I prayed.

Every night, I asked God to help me through this difficult situation. One week later, God did a miracle: my parents changed their minds and promised me their support, no matter what my relatives might say. Because of God’s faithfulness, I am the first female among all my relatives—on both my father’s and mother’s sides of the family—to study at the university level. God helped me overcome one obstacle by clearing the path for my schooling. Today, he has put me in a position to challenge even greater obstacles that Cambodian women face.

Since 2007, I have been working with the Chab Dai Coalition. Chab Dai is a Christian organization with members in Cambodia and partners in many other countries. Chab Dai’s vision is to see Christians working together to end sexual abuse and trafficking. I have never before experienced the joy and satisfaction that I now have in my work. I am grateful that God has called me here, and I have great confidence in his plan for my life. I think that I have a golden chance to serve God by helping vulnerable women see that they have the same worth as men, and that God’s desire is for women and men to serve him together as equals. But, just as I needed God’s help to attend college, we need God’s help to overcome gender injustice.

In Cambodian culture, women’s rights and freedoms are limited in almost all spheres. Social norms, traditional beliefs, and cultural values reinforce gender stereotypes and discrimination against women. Males are dominant leaders and decision-makers in society, while females are expected to conform to traditions. Traditional roles are especially prominent in the countryside, where men work in the fields and women care for the house and young children, and where women are also discouraged from getting an education. However, things are a bit different in the cities. Cambodian city life has become much more like modern, Western culture. Women are much closer to holding equal status with men, education for women is valued, and old traditions are often not enforced. Still, many traditional attitudes about men and women remain strong and widespread.

These beliefs are often negative toward women. We have a saying that girls are like a white piece of cotton or wool, and boys are like a diamond. Cotton or wool, when dropped in the mud, never regains its purity regardless of how much it is washed. A diamond, on the other hand, can be picked up and washed, and will be as clean and sparkling as before. The diamond remains valuable after it is cleaned, but what good is a stained piece of cotton or wool? Since it cannot be made pure again, it is worthless. For this reason, even women who are freed from sex trafficking are still considered stained and are shunned by society and even the church.

Cambodian women are also judged based on the traditional code of conduct for women, called the Chbab Srey, or “Women’s Code.” The Chbab Srey is a traditional, formal code of behavior, passed on to girls by their grandmothers or mothers. Until a few years ago, it was taught in public primary schools as a foundation for social and moral education. The code teaches women how to please their husbands and how to behave like proper women—quiet, shy, and submissive. Many Cambodian women firmly believe that the code is a good moral teaching and should be kept as a part of their cultural identity. 

But a number of the Chbab Srey’s teachings oppress the fundamental rights and basic freedoms of women. It discourages women from speaking out about marital problems, because the issue may erupt and impact whole village. It also teaches that no matter how a husband treats his wife, she must always respond calmly and respectfully. She must not tell others, because to do so would humiliate him. While I agree that women should not gossip about marital problems or make private matters public, many of the Chbab Srey’s rules teach women to submit to abuse and harassment, and they stunt a woman’s emotional and spiritual development. Because of many debates in recent years, there has been a relaxing of the rules, especially in urban areas. But in many rural areas, the code is practically law and must be followed strictly. I believe that for women in Cambodia to overcome oppression and experience God’s love, they need to hear the Bible’s message of equality.

The message of biblical equality contains three main ideas that are helpful in the Cambodian context: human equality, equal responsibility, and mutual submission.

Human equality. This is the idea that all people are equal before God in the church, home, and society. The idea of full equality of all people is becoming more widely accepted, but still faces challenges. Because women are considered to be less than men, there is little motivation to end abuse and oppression. Biblical equality motivates us to fight to end abuse and sex trafficking in Cambodia.

Equal responsibility. Race, gender, and class are not barriers to Christ. Membership, ministry, and mission are open to his entire kingdom, based up on our personal qualification and the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian has the responsibility to use the gifts God has given, whether a man or a woman. When every part of the body is functioning properly, the church can more effectively serve people and spread God’s kingdom.

Mutual submission. This is Christian love in action, with each person treating every other person with dignity. Equality is important to us because we love and believe in God. As a result, we should put God’s word into practice. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Bible is the inspired revelation of God to humanity, and it is our job to obey. Obedience will result in a fairer society, where each person can participate and reach their full potential. And in my country, where the Chbab Srey is the foundation for many marriages, marriage needs the message of mutual submission. When husbands and wives submit to each other, the family will be empowered to serve God. And only when all Christians exercise mutual submission will the church be following Jesus’ example.

Tradition and culture teach society what to value and how to behave. They are unwritten laws that deeply influence people’s mindsets in every way. Unfortunately, tradition and culture are not always helpful in addressing the problems in a society. Even though Cambodians should be proud of many aspects of our culture and traditions, some ideas have been used to judge women and men and to cause harm to many people. The good news is that God is not limited by our cultures.

God is using the message of biblical equality to challenge some dangerous traditions and teach a new cultural mindset for Christians. The Bible tells us that no one is like a cotton rag that has fallen in the mud and is stained forever. All people were equally stained by sin and are equally washed clean by the blood of Jesus. When we take this message to heart, healing will take place for the women and men of Cambodia.

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