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Cham Communities outside Vietnam

The Hijab of Cambodia, book presentation by its author, Farina So.

December 23, 2011

The Hijab of Cambodia examines the experiences and narratives of Cham Muslim women under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). This perspective is grounded in the belief that Muslim women underwent different experiences from men in term of
their gender. Further, for Cham Women’s minority, ethnicity and Islamic faith also shaped their experiences. Their entire experiences are examined through the structure of (1) the nature of women’s narrative and interpretation, and (2) the thematic events in women’s lives during the regime. While the former examines the way women narrate their stories and remember the past, the latter focuses on the KR mistreatment of women and women’s resilience to counter these policies in a shrewd manner. These elements are interwoven in each thematic discussion. The KR’s attempt to transform the country into an agrarian society brought dramatic and
unprecedented changes to women’s lives. Although the KR “intent” to destroy this ethnic group was not found in the KR policies, their treatment on this minority group in Eastern zone between 1977 and 1978 suggests that the KR committed genocide against this group.

Their memories of these changes and episodes are contested, but also consistent over time. There are many parallels from one interview to another. Cham Muslim women complied with the KR in order to survive, but some also resisted in order to maintain their ethnic and religious identity. The women’s memories of their personal experiences of separation, loss, and pain shed light on the systematic policies against Cham Muslims1 and other people.

This book is based on 60 in-depth interviews with Cham Muslim women in Cambodia. It is divided into five thematic chapters that connect the critical moments and experiences of Cham Muslim women’s lives under the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime. Chapter 1 discusses the turning point when the KR ordered forced evacuations from Phnom Penh and other cities to the countryside. The arduous journey and the process of settling into a different environment turned the lives of Cham women upside down. The process of packing, the incessant confusion, the need to hide identities, the feelings of uncertainty and constant fear, and other struggles are discussed. Chapter 2 looks at the changing forms of family and motherhood as a result of KR rhetoric and treatment. Collectivization was the foundation of KR policy and was implemented at the worksite, in the home and during meals. In addition, personal forms of communication and relationships between men and women were greatly restricted. The changes in gender relationships, the rupture of the traditional Cham family structure, the imposition of communal living conditions (including unhalal food), the scarcity of food, the
exhaustive workload, and women’s efforts to preserve the Cham family and motherhood, are discussed. Chapter 3 investigates KR handling of Islamic practices and Cham ethnic identity, the effect of this treatment on women, and the women’sresponses. Religion was banned and thus its manifestations suppressed and punished. This chapter details how despite immense suffering and  hardship, Cham Muslim women became caretakers of their religion and culture. Cham women responded not only to ensure their survival, but also to protect Islamic beliefs and practices and Cham values. Chapter 4 explores women’s experiences of  imprisonment and sexual violence. KR moral offense laws were implemented to restrict physical relationships between men and women and to protect women. In practice, however, women were punished more often than men under these laws because their statements were not valued, in particular in cases of sexual abuse where the abuser was a KR cadre. The aftermath of imprisonment, torture, and sexual violence left these women with emotional and physical scars that make it incredibly difficult for them to move forward.

The conclusion summarizes the main findings and elaborates upon the importance of oral history, memory, and the narratives and perceptions of Cham Muslim women of the KR crimes. Despite limitations, oral history is extremely effective in revealing the  experiences of minority women who suffered greatly. Their tragic stories, told through tears and headache, can nevertheless offer hope for the future.

This study has affected the women who were interviewed, but it has also had an impact on me as a researcher. As part of the generation in Cambodia that grew up after the Khmer Rouge regime, I am limited in my emotional capacity to truly understand the hardships that survivors of the regime faced. During the course of interviewing these brave women, reviewing the tape recordings and transcripts, and writing this monograph, I was keenly aware of my struggle to place myself in their stories. While I feel tremendous empathy for them and strive to understand their point of view, I recognize that I cannot feel what they felt. Thus my empathy is constrained by the enormity of the brutal and inhuman experiences my interviewees went through. However, I have emerged as a stronger person because I have witnessed their courage and honesty. I am motivated to prevent such an atrocity from ever occurring again, and to investigate other issues related to Cham Muslim women and women in general in future research.

Another book titled “the Cham Rebellion” by Ysa Osman presents first-hand accounts of Cham Muslims in Svay Khleang and Koh  Phal villages who rebelled against the Khmer Rouge atrocious policy in late 1975. For villagers, this movement was to claim freedom of religion and economic. Most of the narratives come from residents of Kroch Chhmar district, which stretches along the Mekong  River in Kampong Cham province. This district was located in “Region 21” of East Zone during Democratic Kampuchea. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge had firm control over every village in the district. According to Mr. Ysa, cumulative grievances and resentment on the KR
caused this resistance. The KR forbade religious practices and killed off many Cham Muslim religious dignitaries and elders in the villages. The rebels, all were men, confronted physically with the Khmer Rouge militiamen. However, as a consequence, many rebels were killed at the scene and those allegedly involved directly were arrested and sent to Kroch Chhmar security center. Their wives as well as the rest of the villagers were sent to other places where they were prone to malaria and other disease.

At the end of the Democratic Kampuchea regime in 1979, very few Cham survived and returned to Svay Khleang and Koh Phal. A generation later, Svay Khleang’s population has grown to 2,000 people. Koh Phal, however, has only ten to twenty villagers. The strong currents of the Mekong have carried away bits of this village’s land each year; now virtually nothing is left. These two books can be found at DC-Cam and Monument Books Center in Phnom Penh. The Hijab of Cambodia has two versions—Khmer and English. Hundred copies of the Hijab of Cambodia in Khmer were distributed to students, teachers, community members, and government officials.


1 The term “Cham Muslims” refers to the Cham and the Chvea. Both Cham and Chvea practice sunni Islam, but the Chvea do not speak Cham. Among the Cham, there is a small group of the Cham called Cham Jahed. This group is well known for maintaining Cham customs and traditions. Scattered in communities across Cambodia, the Cham Muslim population is approximately 700,000 out of 14 millions.

© 2008 Sacha Champa. All rights reserved.
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