Anne Elizabeth Moore, author of “New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia”, shares her insights into working with, and writing about, a new generation of courageous Cambodian women as well as the white men who seek to protect them from themselves.
The ideal Cambodian woman enshrined in the Chbap Srei is like a long-suffering species of jungle tiger, creeping through kitchens and bedrooms as she cooks and cleans, motionless as a stalked beast when her husband pummels her stripeless body. In the presence of men and boys, her sharp eyes retreat to a far corner, preferably a dusty one, stoking her instinct to descend with a broom like a huntress at a fresh kill.
For some reason, Ryna, Amoun and the rest of the girls who live in a Phnom Penh dorm filled with one of their country’s first generations of college-going women think the 19th century Chbap Srei – that’s “Girl Law” in English – leaves something to be desired. (To be fair, the text is more folk statute than tiger metaphor: “A woman who walks too loudly will become disorganized and lose her property. A woman who sleeps with her back to her husband is like a bad snake who shouldn’t be let into the house.” And so on.) Busy chasing degrees in law, accounting and medicine, they also set out to rewrite this code of passivity and domestic violence. Their scribe is American writer Anne Elizabeth Moore, who shared their dorm for four months in 2008. The resulting Chbap Srei Tmein (“New Girl Law”) is something more just and uniquely theirs, where laws such as “Be brave enough to make eye contact with and speak to boys” coexist with others on imports and wage standards.
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Moore struggled to understand what the project meant for her own work and for everyone fighting for global and local justice. The product of that struggle is New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia (released March 31 by Cantankerous Titles/Microcosm Publishing). In the book, the same ambitious minds, whose zine-making efforts star in the first book in Moore’s series on Cambodia, take on more than just the Chbap Srei. They face their country’s violent history, their own uncertain futures, and the strange and hilarious presence of the foreigner who cares so much about making their voices heard that she’s brought into a kind of one-sided censorship battle with a small group of US men who prefer they remain silent.
(Full disclosure: Anne Elizabeth Moore is a member of Truthout’s board of advisers.)
Truthout: You say something really intriguing near the start of the book: that the only way you can think to explain the Chbap Srei to American women and girls is by asking them to imagine that advertising in the US carried the weight of law. What do you mean by that?
Anne Elizabeth Moore: We write off the effects of advertising, which is a world I’ve written about throughout my entire career, and so over these now several decades, I’ve had a lot of experiences where people are telling me very clearly that advertising doesn’t impact you, and if it does impact you, you just look away, you switch the channel, you don’t look at the billboard that’s offensive.
The thing about the Chbap Srei is that it’s so deeply woven into Cambodian culture, and it’s sort of talked about in the same way among the young women as advertising is in the US – you know, “Oh it’s an old text; it doesn’t matter anymore.” But it’s also read as natural and inescapable because it has this direct connection to the law, which is that one of the versions was written by a prince, and there’s always this confusion when a prince says something. Is it a law? Is it a comment? Is it a warning? – in a former monarchy, that carries a lot of weight. So in the US, to imagine that there was that extra connection – if all of advertising had emanated from some George Washington or Lincoln descendant, who was also an elected official, or was legislated and upheld by some branch of government.
Q. You held sessions at the dorm where the young women rewrote the Chpab Srei with you, or you led them in rewriting it themselves. How much did you lead them toward these final 20 points that are listed at the back of the book as their new law, and how much did they lead themselves?
A. The entire project was their idea, one young woman’s idea in particular. I was pretty surprised that she had come up with this. She is very smart, and among the young women, her English is the best, and so she is the one who would have processed the most Western feminist ideals in the first place. But at the same time, I was still surprised that that was an idea that emanated from her, from a Cambodian young woman. Once we came up with this context, and once we figured out how we could shape it into happening, there were a couple of things that I was like, well, if we’re talking about this, let’s also talk about, you know, feminine hygiene products, or let’s think about women gaining physical strength. And they were pretty clear with me when they needed to shut down a stupid idea I had, like with the suggestion that women perhaps seek to gain physical strength; that was totally not acceptable to them. So they dictated what the rules would be, and I really ended up writing them down.
Q. There’s another scene from one of these classes where you’re trying to explain democracy. You say: “I wasn’t about to criticize Cambodia’s particular version of democracy – I could leave any time I wanted and wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.” Were you ever afraid that someone at the dorm would inform on you?
A. It wouldn’t have been like that. It wouldn’t have been like, you tell the government what I’m doing and what we’re doing, and one of us gets in trouble or we all get in trouble or the dorm gets in trouble, because Cambodia’s technically a democracy. My concerns were more about, am I operating within the comfort zone that they are setting, or am I pushing them into directions that they’re not comfortable with? In other words, are we testing out new models of behavior together, or are they just doing what the white lady says they should do? To some degree they’d stopped doing what I suggested simply because I suggested it a really long time ago, but that also meant shifting my own behavior. And one of the ways of gauging that was, you know, we’re not going to be super loud or public about this project. We’re not going to distribute this book to people who didn’t want it. Or the zines – we weren’t going to put those in places where they’re not requested or accepted, or they won’t have a readership that the women together didn’t determine in advance.
That’s a really hard question. Have I answered it?
Q. Maybe I ask because I’ve been reading so much about homeland security in the news – you start to think about that level of paranoia that it’s sometimes necessary to operate under when political ideas can endanger your physical integrity or your livelihood and so on.
A. It’s hard to translate. All the homeland security stuff – self-policing and projected fears around “terrorism” and “antigovernment activity,” that’s been happening in the US since DHS was fully funded and staffed in 2004 – that’s happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and beforehand with the American bombings in the late 1960s. Those fears have been embedded in Cambodian culture for much longer than they have in the US. At least, as a white person who lives on the North Side of Chicago. On the South Side of Chicago, if I were a black person, I would have a totally different sense of when surveillance became a widespread tool of oppression.
So the fears aren’t really about direct government reprisal, but more about operating within a sense of safety that the women were setting themselves.
Q. Your narrative style is a lot like in the first book. It’s very conversational and fun to read, and you have this interesting way of portraying these dual thoughts that are running alongside each other in your head a lot when you talk with the women. There’s a point when you talk about feeling proud to hear one of them, Ryna, describe how she had survived a bombing campaign when her father was out fighting the war. You don’t know what side he fought on, perhaps she didn’t even know. And as you listen to her, you’re also asking yourself if you would love her any less if you found out her dad fought for the Khmer Rouge. Is this your journalist mind, or your traveler-foreigner mind, or what?
A. Or is it this innate punk sensibility of wanting to escape any intimacy I ever come across! But no, I think that all of those things come out of the same batch of questions I have about the world. Do I understand enough to just sort of give up and care about this person? And I think, like with Ryna, in having that conversation and the larger conversations about, I’m here to work with young women who come from an incredibly complicated place and live in an incredibly complicated economic situation, as well as under a difficult governmental regime and also a lot of comparative privilege, and yet in an incredibly disadvantaged region of the world. Is there a moment that I can just give all that up and just love the person that I am with? I think working through that is where that intense ambivalence comes from – really just questioning the crazy shit these young women have been through in their own lives, and they didn’t even have that larger sense of history that I was able to read into, sometimes, their own narratives.
Q. You don’t want to put your narrative on their story, but they’re literally missing part of their own story.
A. They just had a different connection to it. And this is the reason why it’s so important to realize the Khmer Rouge created an American resistance movement, a movement that really questioned whether or not capitalism and democracy was the way that Southeast Asia could best operate. It was a horrible way of controlling the people, and I don’t have any compassion for how that happened, but realizing that the people who were involved thought they were doing it for a good reason is a pretty interesting thing to realize as an American. It’s kind of amazing to see it play out, to hear it emerge from the mouths of teenage girls, and realize that these complicated things that they’re saying come from this very weighted history that, for whatever reason, I need to decide I can accept.
So, did I meet people who have done horrible things to survive, whether at the behest of others or by choice? I did. Did I fear for my own safety and well-being? Sometimes, yes. Did I make a deliberate decision to care about people who had hurt others or had the potential to hurt me? I did. Life is complicated.
Q. Let’s talk about relationships a little bit more. In the first book, the dorm director Sonrith Channy, which is a pseudonym, gave you an extensive interview that makes up most of a chapter of the first book in this series. By the end of this second book, we learn she now thinks of you as “a dangerous person to have around young women in Cambodia.” What happened?
A. I don’t know. That’s the story. It’s not even like there’s more details that I could provide. People talk about Cambodia as a place where there are all these political fears, but it’s much more than that, especially for women whose only official role in the national economy is in the low-wage and often unsafe garment industry. The fears are economic as well. So while censorship and self-censorship are often cast as concerns about government violence or harassment, the more pressing concern for women is often: Is this something that’s going to limit my ability to make money in the future, that’s going to limit my ability to get a good job, or move ahead? Or whatever sort of economic impact something like that could have.
That’s one of the things that I had to accept in writing the book: there are just a lot of answers that I don’t even know who to ask the questions of.
Q. And it might not be safe if you did ask, either for you or for the other person?
A. Yeah, or it might not even matter. There are good, strong reasons, provable reasons, why anyone outside of the US should absolutely reject everything that US women say about women’s movements. The US women’s movement is a – I don’t want to say total failure – but actually, I do want to say total failure. There’s a lot of ways that it works, but there’s a lot of ways that it has failed. There’s a massive wage gap. The number of women in US political office keeps sliding down the international ranking every election. We’re losing accrued rights to birth control very rapidly. We’ve got women pitching neoliberal capitalist ideologies/slash social-media marketing plans as feminism. And we’ve got prominent feminists exhibiting a huge amount of transphobia instead of taking seriously the root feminist notion that gender policing hurts everyone. You don’t have to get too far away to notice that what we describe as “feminist” in the US might have some serious flaws.
Q. The book overall has this fresh, optimistic tone. Then at the end, you write this hypothetical address to the young women you’ve been working with, the things you couldn’t say to them, and it’s pretty pessimistic. Things like, “some of you will raise your voice, be reprimanded, and never do it again.” And “some of you will find this life of change too hard, and retreat.” But all these women seem like such strong characters, and they’ve already overcome a lot. Why the pessimism?
A. I would say it’s realism. Where it comes from is, that book describes events from 2008, and it’s now 2013, and that’s what happened. Those are true statements. One reason that I refuse to call that pessimism is because I haven’t stopped loving those young women, or believing in what they can and will accomplish, and have already accomplished, even if they are not acting out of concern any longer for their sisters, for other Cambodian young women. But it takes more than 32 young women to change a country, and particularly in this case, to change the economic potential for young women in a country. That’s what it will take in the future, for young women to really operate under a condition of freedom, is economic freedom. Not in terms of being able to open their own markets and being subject to American capitalism, but being valued for what they contribute to culture and compensated for it.
Q. Let’s talk about when you came back to the US. You did a residency at an arts organization and made a handbound book – also called New Girl Law but separate from the book we’ve been talking about – that came with audio from the drafting sessions for the new set of laws the young women came up with. The director of the organization cancelled the release of the audio at the last minute. Did you ever find out why?
A. I requested a meeting to discuss why but it never happened. I sort of heard through the grapevine, things like, Am I being dangerous? Am I being inappropriate? All of which are sort of embedded in this question of like, “Who is this woman, and why does she feel she has the right to do this thing with these young women?” Keep in mind, the audio – that part was my idea, but I discussed it with my collaborators thoroughly in advance. How could we edit it, how could they hear it, did they feel safe with people hearing it. We worked all that out over the course of a month of intense email discussions. But the director who made the decision was apparently talking to another couple of men about it, and this protectionist element came in, like, “We know better what’s good for these young women than this person . . .”
Q. Who hung out with them in a dorm for months at a time?
A. Right. But they, or he, seemed to see it as, “We understand the way that world politics work better than she possibly could.” It came down to the same question of how people like Nick Kristof talk about young women in Cambodia – which I write about fairly frequently and have a piece in the recent Baffler about. The part that I click with is that we as Americans have some responsibility for the condition of young women’s lives in countries that we have current trade relationships with and that we have committed illegal large-scale military actions against. That’s not the way that Kristof puts it, but that’s what I feel. Particularly Cambodia, who we have a complicated political history with. Complicated meaning, we have fucked up a lot.
So that’s the part that I agree with, but the line Kristof tends to take is, “Therefore, I need to implement my mode of improving their lives along a scale that I have outlined for them.” That’s where his methods – especially as a reporter – really get problematic. Occasionally his work, especially around sex workers, has involved imprisoning women against their will and refusing to allow them to do the job that they have chosen to do because they see it’s the best way for them to survive in this economy. He believes his solution to their economic need is superior to the one they have themselves devised. But in implementing it, he must not allow them to be heard. So what starts out as being a genuinely engaged mode of caring about people really quickly turns into silencing.
I start to hint in the book, too, that this protectionism that is the uncomfortable underbelly of capitalism was also beginning to emerge in the dorm itself.
Q. And you feel like that’s what was happening with suppressing your audio?
A. Yeah, like there’s this protectionism that gets mixed up with patriarchy and capitalism, and we end up with a lot of moneyed white guys who believe that they are acting out of the best interests of everyone involved, but they have not asked anyone involved what their interests are. Women do it, too.
Q. But they never told you, “We think it’s too dangerous,” they were just like, “Nope we’re not going to stream this anywhere”?
A. I don’t want to get into the specifics of the measures we put in place to make sure it was not dangerous, or even accessible by anyone beyond the handful of folks we were going to stream it for, but more or less what I was told directly was, “It’s been cancelled and we’re not doing it,” which is, generally speaking, the most you can expect to get when you have a work that’s been censored. All of a sudden, the door slams shut and that’s the end of the story.
Q. What about the next two books that will finish the series?
A. Before Cambodian Grrrl was published, I had a very clear picture of what those four books would look like. But something about the process of getting this one down on paper – it was really hard to finish this book because all the emotions were so weird, but also because it’s just a really hard thing to talk about: Who overstepped boundaries? Was it me? How much of this is fair? How much of this is unfair? How much of this can I even understand? So my sense of what those next couple of stories might be has totally changed, and now I’m not sure what they’re going to be at all.
When I went back again on a self-funded trip, after the events I describe in New Girl Law took place, that’s when I started looking at garment workers’ issues, and that became really important and fascinating to me. So the next batch of books will somehow be about the garment workers.
Q. So the last question is a personal question, and I won’t be offended if you opt not to answer it: You mention in the book that your relationship with your family is somewhat estranged, and at the same time you enter really naturally, it seems from the text, into this pretty familial relationship with all these young women: You’re living in really close quarters with them. They call each other “sister.” They call you “sister.” Do you see your work as a way of creating family, or how does that play out for you?
A. If I say yes then am I like, acknowledging some secret maternal drive which I totally don’t have?
But it’s totally true, that that thing of creating community through work, which we talked about before the interview started, is really important to me. And not just because my own family is such a mess, but because the work that I have chosen to do, and the work that I’m best at, is sitting around in a room all day typing into a computer, completely by myself, with no one around except for my cats who need food. Sister is a term of respect in Khmer culture, but I think what you’re referring to is that we also developed very emotionally intimate relationships that gave that term meaning. And like, being reminded that there’s a functioning world out there with people who have their own arms and legs – and actually can cook their own food! Or, like, hug each other! – is really important, not just because writing is lonely, but because writing is for other people. If I don’t have that reminder that other people are there, or why they matter, then I would probably stop doing it entirely.
Q. Is there anything you want to add?
A. I’ve been asked lately if the book’s limitations – it’s in English, it’s on a small press – limit the ability of its ideas to travel. A reporter in Cambodia said, “It’s only in English so nobody can read it.” She meant, very few Cambodians. And that’s true. It’s also written for an American audience. But there’s this young woman who started translating the book into Mandarin on her own. I just want to honor that. These ideas have a way of filtering through cultures, and the right people will be able to read it eventually.