Catherine Harry on the new wave of feminists in Cambodia and fighting problematic stereotypes

Growing up, I was conditioned into thinking that my value and worth as a person is determined by how desirable a man finds me. Adults around me talk about how pretty women who have men vying for them would get high bridal price, marking her as being superior. My cousins used to joke that if I had any scars, my bridal price would diminish because a man wouldn’t pay high price for a woman with scars. As though I would be damaged good. Not a human being, but simply a commodity.

I believed in that narrative. When I was six, my biggest dream was to get married by 21 years old and have children. I couldn’t see farther than that. Looking back on it now as a self-proclaimed feminist at the age of 26, I feel saddened by how society treated the younger version of me. But I was not an anomaly. I was one of the many young women in Cambodia, made to feel this way.

We are taught to be desirable, to be proper, to be one day considered to be a good wife, and yet, society didn’t teach us that desire has to be wanted by both parties. There’s an old Khmer saying that goes, “Women are like flowers. Men are like bees, always wanting to taste the flowers.” It was repeated to me so many times that I never thought twice about it. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how problematic it is to liken men to insect who simply wants to “taste” women as though it’s in their nature—uncontrollable—while women are immobile flowers, unable to escape their clutch.

Once I went through puberty, I understood how it felt to be suffocated by men’s desires. Even before I became an adult, I was harassed and catcalled so often that I developed my own survival technique: wearing headphones with music blasting loud so that I couldn’t hear the crass things those men felt entitled to scream at me in public. Fear constantly plagued me as I went out, worrying whether I would be corner or harmed by stranger simply because I was a woman. It got to the point where I couldn’t walk my dog alone at night after a particular incident that left me shaken.

I knew the statistics. In 2013, a UN report showed that 1 in 5 men had admitted to have raped a woman. I didn’t want to be one of those statistics.

I knew the statistics. In 2013, a UN report showed that 1 in 5 men had admitted to have raped a woman. I didn’t want to be one of those statistics.

Thus, I sought for a way to fight back—to retaliate and make my voice heard. With my background in media, I took out my camera, set up a cheap fabric on my wall and filmed my very first vlog. I called my channel “A Dose of Cath” because essentially, it’s about my voice. A young woman in a small conservative country called Cambodia, but I demanded to be heard. I yearned to carve my place and claim back my space. My very first vlog was about 50 shades of Grey and the glorification of abuse in the books and series.

One vlog turned into another, and four years later, I have done hundreds of videos on topics ranging from sex, masturbation, feminism to consent and gender based violence. All the effort was borne from the fire I felt, simply because I refused to be told to sit quietly and swallow the sexism and misogyny society insists on feeding me. I look at feminist figures such as Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and aspired to be like them. With that determination in mind, despite all the backlash, the criticisms, name-callings, I persisted and resisted because 1 in 5 men having raped a woman at one point in their lives is a pill I refused to swallow.

Since when I first started working on A Dose of Cath, I have travelled to schools and workshops in many places around the country to give talks on various topics from menstruation and consent. I have been invited to many countries from Germany to Austria and Turkey to participate in discourse on feminism, gender, women empowerment, and sexual reproductive health, spreading the messages I believe in one person at a time.

Cambodia, just like most countries in the world, has its own sets of problems when it comes to gender. Our culture still stifles women’s liberation and expression, especially in regards to our sexuality. But with the new wave of young feminists in the country, I have high hopes that we will spearhead our own feminist movement which will be more inclusive and intersection where no one is left behind and patriarchy becomes a thing of the past.

Read A Dose of Cath