Arranged marriage has been the tradition in Cambodia for centuries and remains the norm practiced for Cambodians both at home and overseas. Marriage is a very important institution for Cambodians. The courtship practices and the marriage ceremony are very different from those practiced in the Western culture.
Traditionally, marriage was always arranged without the knowledge or consent of the individuals to be married. Forced marriage was common. Many families arranged marriages while the betrothed individuals were still very young; friends made promises to each other that their children would marry. If a man were interested in marrying a girl he saw but to whom he had not spoken, his parents would arrange an engagement ceremony with the girl’s parents. The girl would have nothing to say about it.
Marriage is still arranged but individuals often are consulted about the choice of their spouse, and rejecting the parents’ arrangement is tolerated. Even a young woman has an opportunity to reject her parents’ wishes, although not many daughters are yet willing to exercise this option.
Arranged marriage has survived because of religion and tradition. Most Cambodians are Buddhist. In Buddhism, it is an obligation of parents to find spouses for their children and to marry them into good families. Traditional Cambodian culture also pressures parents to choose and arrange marriages for the child so that their family’s pride and honor are retained.
Children also have obligations toward their parents to do their utmost to maintain their parents’ honor. Cambodians believe in returning gratitude to their parents. Marrying into a good family is considered to be a way of returning gratitude, especially for a girl or young woman.
In the old days, the marriage was an arduous and lengthy affair. It could take months to prepare for the marriage. Courtship involved many rituals to be followed and wedding ceremonies lasted three days. Today, because of the demands of modern living and the influence of other cultures, marriage is much simpler and less time consuming. Courtship and wedding ceremonies can be conducted in one day.
The traditional role of Khmer women goes back at least to the Angkor era (802 - 1431 A.D.), when the “apsara” or “goddess” was accepted as the embodiment of a virtuous, ideal woman and described in proverbs, folktales and novels as the example of how women should behave.
Cambodia is a male-dominated society and females are expected to conform to traditions. Cambodians often compare girls to a piece of cotton wool, whereas they compare a boy to a diamond. Cotton wool, when dropped into mud, never regains its purity regardless of how much it is washed. On the contrary, a diamond dropped into mud, can be picked up, washed and become as clean and sparkling as before it got dirty.
A girl is expected to obey her parents and elders, to be gentle and softly spoken. Traditional Cambodian culture expects a girl to behave according to social norms and to avoid any transgression that could be branded as ‘dirty’. Many times when a Khmer girl goes against a social norm, she is called “slut and prostitute” (“srey couch”) not just “dirty”. She is expected not to date or mingle freely with men or to have premarital sex. A girl who engages in premarital sex is considered beyond redemption. A girl is taught that virtuous behavior includes not crying or screaming during labor, and not complaining when abused by spouse, parents, or elders. The tradition of holding girls to strict, sometimes harsh standards creates many problems with Khmer-American youth and their parents today.
While there are serious consequences for a Cambodian girl for social transgressions, her behavior also affects her family. In terms of marriage, she becomes undesirable by a ‘good’ family because no one wants a ‘dirty’ girl as an in-law. Her parents’ pride and honor would also be shattered. Their shame would make them social rejects. It is believed that a grateful daughter would never put her parents in such jeopardy. With such pressure, a girl has no choice but to have her future arranged by her parents and to accept their wishes about marriage.
On the other hand, traditionally a man experiences less social and family pressure to conform. In the case of marriage, he has more freedom in seeking and choosing a spouse. A man is compared to a diamond; any transgressions can be corrected. Premarital and extramarital sex is considered acceptable although the modern constitution forbids polygamy. The growth of the sex industry in Cambodia may have long term consequences because of the spread of AIDS throughout the country. Having partners and children outside of marriage may be causing social and economic disruption.
Today most Cambodian men choose their own wives, although they still seek the advice and approval of their parents for two reasons. First, he wants to preserve their honor by not marrying a ‘dirty’ girl. A good son wouldn’t go against his parents’ wishes. Second, he needs their approval because usually they are responsible for a dowry and wedding ceremony expenses. In Cambodia, most children live with their parents until married.
In Cambodia a man pays dowry to the parents of the girl he marries. He also pays for all expenses of the wedding ceremonies. Girls’ families may demand huge dowries as a demonstration that the man will be able to care for his wife. Usually parents would not marry their daughter without dowry as it would be considered a dishonor. The dowry usually has to be settled before the wedding ceremony. Some parents go heavily into debt while trying to pay for a dowry. On the other hand, some parents of girls do not demand a dowry if they are satisfied that a prospective son-in-law would be a good husband of their daughter.
Marriage is not just between a man and woman but between families. Large dowries are signs of prominence and a demonstration that the groom’s family is financially capable of providing for the daughter. When a girl demands a huge dowry, she ensures financial security and can repay her parents for giving her life and raising her. Khmer children are considered to be the possessions of their parents. The parents can send their children (most often the girls) to be servants or to work in the commercial sex industry in order to support the family or to pay the parents back.
Cambodian girls usually marry between 18 and 25 years of age. If a woman older than that remains single her parents start to worry that no desirable man will ask their daughter to marry. Cambodian men rarely marry an older woman. However, it is not uncommon for a girl younger than 18 years old to be married to a much older man. Typically a groom is 12 years older than the bride.
The wedding ceremonies are traditionally held at the bride’s home. After the wedding, the groom moves in with the bride’s parents (This tradition would be opposite for Cambodians with Chinese ancestry who still practice Chinese culture). In Cambodia, women keep their names after they are married.
For more on Cambodian wedding traditions, see also Khmer Institute.
Loyalty, Divorce, Polygamy
In times past, although Cambodian marriages were arranged, married life was good and love gradually grew between the couple after they married. Spousal loyalty was strong; it is a religious duty for husband and wife to be loyal to each other. Divorce was low. Domestic violence was rare; usually the couple lived with parents and a large extended family that provided strong family support. A couple could turn to family in case of any marriage problems, and family would often keep an eye on the couple.
Today, the state of marriage, like pretty much everything else in Cambodia, has declined considerably. Thirty years of destructive wars and extreme violence took its toll on families and traditional behavior. These days, loyalty between husbands and wives is much looser. Economic hardship has compounded the problem as many men leave the villages to go where they might find work. Partners/families outside of the legal marriage and the desertion of wives and children have become common social illnesses in Cambodia. (Henry Kamm, Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land 1998, Arcade Books)
The modern constitution forbids polygamy; some say it is commonly practiced more often when family economics permit. The effect of wars and the indiscriminate killing of men during the Khmer Rouge reign have created a population imbalance between men and women. Social, financial and emotional pressures force widows as well as single women and girls to accept partners, even married ones. Many children are born out of wedlock. Jealous rage and fighting among women for one man is frequent.
The fighting is vicious. Recently, there have been cases of women resorting to a violent tactic known as ‘acid attack’. A jealous wife splashes nitric acid on her husband’s mistress. The intention of the attack is not to kill, but to disfigure, the victim. This happens at all levels of society.
The most notorious case of ‘acid attack’ occurred in 1999 when the wife and bodyguards of a senior government official poured five liters of acid on the face of the husband’s 18-year-old mistress. The attack left the victim horribly disfigured. It destroyed much of the skin on her face and back and severely impaired her sight and hearing.
The attacks are so frequent and vicious that newspapers and radios appeal to woman to stop behaving with such violence against each other. The government, alarmed by the savagery, has banned the sale of acid and drawn up laws to combat this trend.
Spousal disloyalty can become deadly as men return to their wives after working away from home, infected with the HIV virus acquired through heterosexual extramarital affairs. Cambodia is a country with rapidly growing numbers of HIV/Aids cases. The tragedy includes children, many of whom are born with the virus.
Statistically, the divorce rate in Cambodia remains low. According to the Cambodia National Institute of Statistics, the divorce rate as of 1998 is 2.4%.
This low rate is in large part due to culture, which discourages divorce. Divorce is a shameful affair, especially for women. Social tradition and today’s family laws encourage reconciliation rather than divorce, even when one partner is at serious physical or psychological risk. The rate is also low because the poor women have limited access to the legal system.
For Cambodians, marriage may sometimes be ceremonial rather than legal. For example, many Khmer in the U.S. may get married in huge ceremonies without legal arrangements in order to maintain their status in the welfare system. In instances where marriages are not recognized legally, there may be no need for divorce if the couple decides not to remain together.
In the U.S., most Cambodians still wish to marry within their community. Many men return to get married in Cambodia. Arranged marriage is also being practiced here in the U.S. Love marriages have also found their way into the community, especially with the younger generation. Today, it is acceptable for Cambodian men and women to date or marry non-Cambodians.
Practices that remain taboo in Cambodia are tolerated more in the U.S. While many youth are still raised with traditional cultural values and restrictions, it is true that some girls date and mingle with boys freely; they stay out late, have premarital sex and even live together as a couple without being married. Children are born out of wedlock. Some parents may even allow their children to bring a boyfriend or girlfriend to live with them as they resign themselves to the fact that their children are under the cultural influence of the society in which they live. Divorce is more tolerated in the U.S. Cambodian community than in Cambodia.
Increasing domestic violence is another sign of the decline in married life in Cambodia. According to a survey conducted by a Cambodian non-governmental organization ‘Project Against Domestic Violence - PADV’ in cooperation with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 73.9 percent of interviewees stated that they knew of at least one family experiencing domestic violence.
Domestic violence in the form of physical abuse of wife and children by the husband and father is very common. There is also much emotional abuse. Positive reinforcement of children’s behavior is not culturally appropriate. Parents believe that giving compliments and affirmations to their children will go to their head. This is true among Khmer families in the U.S. as well as in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, the abusers are very violent. Fifty percent of women who reported abuse stated that they received injuries; more than half of those injuries were to the head. Women reported beatings, whippings, stabbing, and even ax attacks. Most often the violence is perpetrated in public.
Typically the police or the community gives little help to the victims. Police intervene only in the case of the severe injuries or death, as there is no law specifically against domestic violence. In fact, the law to combat domestic violence has just been proposed and is scheduled for debate in the National Assembly at the end of 2002. The attitude of society compounds this problem. Cambodians consider domestic violence as a private and family matter. Women most often are blamed for instigating the violence by not properly behaving or providing sex to their husbands.
As a Cambodian woman lamented, “If there are thirty days in a month, it seems as if my husband hits me sixty. My neighbors know he hits me at night. They always think it is a dispute over intercourse. The neighbors often advise me, ‘If your husband wants to have sex, you must give it to him. If you don’t, he will hit you.’”
Cambodia: Rattling the Killing Fields
Spousal rape is an alien concept to most Cambodians, both men and women. According to PADV, thirty-two out of the thirty-seven women interviewed stated that a husband should be able to have sex whenever he wants.
Written by Keo Mony
Reviewed by Jeniffer Huong, Seattle, WA