EXPLORING OUR UNIQUE AND DIVERSE LIFE TRAJECTORIES AS WOMEN, AND SISTERS...
By Maggie Padlewska
Jan. 25, 2020
I recall the amazement of a 21-year-old woman, wife and mother who had no shortage of questions for me as we sat glued to each other on a stiff bench during a nine-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to the Mondulkiri province in Cambodia. She was amazed that I was travelling alone, not so much because of this particular road trip, but because of the many expeditions that I embarked on as a lone journalist documenting stories singlehandedly around the globe since 2009.
"You are not afraid?" she asked.
"No, not at all." I replied.
"Where is your husband?" she continued.
"I don't have one" I said, followed by an assuring 'don't-worry-about-me, I'm-happy-with-my-decisions' kind of smile as her eyes widened in what appeared to be a mild case of shock.
Those two simple questions and answers then triggered an in depth conversation that lasted for the remainder of our long bus ride together. Two women, from two very different backgrounds, families and cultures, sharing our own stories openly and candidly with a mutual curiosity and utmost respect for one another.
Our chat was truly fascinating, insightful, and one that surely left us both with a lot ponder after we hugged and parted ways upon reaching our final destination.
That conversation from a few months ago was just one of many like it, that I've engaged in here since my arrival in this Southeast Asian country a little over three years ago.
In Cambodia, especially in its countryside and rural communities, women are often expected to marry young - as young as 16 in many cases. Girls often lack advanced schooling opportunities and settle into lives similar to those embraced by their mothers, grandmothers and the many women who came before them. Some are ok with it and even enjoy their well-defined and structured roles in life, while others do not but are expected to roll with it because they are told not to question traditional ways or to think otherwise I've been told.
There's a very well-known Khmer poem, the so-called "women's code" that is deeply ingrained in the minds of many people, especially women, here in Cambodia. It's called Chbap Srey. Passed down from one generation to the next since the 14th century (it is believed), it consists of 16 verses that were taught and expected to be memorized by girls as part of the school curriculum until 2007.
In short, the code urges girls (and later grown women) to adhere to a strict set of rules designed to create the perfect woman...one who is submissive, quiet, keeps her thoughts, opinions, concerns and grievances to herself, and ultimately serves her husband without ever questioning his decisions, behaviour or actions.
My personal upbringing was very different...
for which I at times feel guilty, given the struggles that so many women continue to endure.
My beloved Mother and me - in Poland, sometime in 1977.
While I would most certainly get well-deserved taps on my derriere for my occasional (or numerous - depending on who you ask) shenanigans as a child, my upbringing was defined by unconditional love and encouragement to reach for the stars as they say - to be lived and executed based on my own ambitions and goals that I would personally chose to pursue in life. While I received much guidance, suggestions and advise from my very wise Parents, my freedom to pursue my dreams was always supported - no matter how far-fetched they may have been at times.
This being said, I am highly aware of my good fortune and profoundly grateful to have been raised and inspired my beloved Parents, which of course includes my Mother - my greatest female role model.
"I've never met a woman like that in my life!" explained Srors, a young entrepreneur in Siem Reap whose story I'm documenting - moments after I spoke briefly my Mother during our chat about female empowerment.
And it is with the culmination of conservations and the exchange of stories and ideas like these that I've been privileged to have a been a part of, that I dedicate this project to the wonderful and amazing women who stories I believe deserved to be celebrated and shared with the hope of contributing their voices to the crucial dialogue that is currently being had in Cambodia.
I thank you for your support!
- Maggie Padlewska