Muslim Community (Part 1): a puritanical form of Islam makes its first steps in Cambodia
By Chheang Bopha
Kompong Som (Cambodia), 12/07/2008.
Muslim teenage girls at the Koranic school in the village of Ochrov
© Chheang Bopha
Over the past few years, some Cambodian girls have turned into ghostly figures, covered in long and loose-fitting black gowns, their head girded with a veil that hides every inch of their body but their eyes. This tradition is often introduced into families when members of the community urge them to, after studying in Koranic schools generally based in the region, or after a pilgrimage in Near Eastern countries from which they came back promoting a strict interpretation of the Koran. According to Sos Kamry, president of the Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs in Cambodia, these followers of a puritanical Islam only represent a minority of people, in other words 2% of Cambodia's Muslim community, which gathers all in all 500,000 followers. (Part One)
Wearing the niqab: a rather recent trend
Ta-Khmau, less than 10 miles away from the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The dome of a mosque gives a hint about the presence of a Muslim village, often abusively called “Cham”. In the little town of Prek Tapouv, a few teenage girls comfortably wander about, entirely dressed in black and only disclosing their eyes to other passers-by.
On the side of the road, a group of women are washing their clothes, seizing the opportunity of a downpour of rain. They only wear a simple Islamic veil and claim they never part with their niqab (a garment which covers the whole body apart from the eyes) except when they are busy with household chores. For the mere sake of convenience.
On hearing their words, three young girls wearing their niqab climb down their stilt house to join the conversation. One of them, Fapridas, aged 18, says with a soft voice that she never leaves her outfit. When she reached the age of puberty, she started hiding her hair under a scarf and eventually covered herself completely from head to toes, leaving only a slit in the garment for her jet-black eyes.
Fapridas, a bright student at school, tells us she preferred giving up her studies rather than yielding to the ban on the veil at school. “In my family, we are strict about the respect of our religion. Girls are not allowed to leave the house without wearing their scarf and niqab. And once we reach puberty, we must not expose our hair or the tiniest bit of skin, and even less in front of men, otherwise we sign up for a bad karma in the next life!”
Fapridas says she has never been forced by anyone to act so, and precises with the voice of a conscientious schoolgirl keen to avoid any reprimand, that she is “just a devout Muslim who does not want to arouse the wrath of Allah.”
Young Muslims from all provinces gathered together in a Koranic school
To avoid waiving the sacrosanct principle which requires her to flit under other people's stare, young Fapridas left to go and study in a Koranic school based in the municipality of Sihanoukville, in the village of Ochrov. This school, which opened its doors in January 2001, is the only institution of its kind in the country. There, Fapridas joined another hundred students, all from the four corners of the country. And there, the school rules impose the wearing of the veil and niqab.
When this little flock of dark shadows comes out of the walls of the Al Muhajirin school, sarcastic remarks start coming from all sides on the part of villagers living nearby, who did not waste time to find nicknames: “Ninja”, “vampire”... But the girls turn a deaf ear to these.
A life-changing decision
Asmak, a 20 year-old girl from Phnom Penh, has been attending Al Muhajirin school for three years. After the Baccalaureate, she decided not to continue her studies but instead, devoted herself entirely to learning religion. And yet, nothing predestined this once trendy city girl to swap her jeans for a niqab. “I don't regret anything. When I went on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, I saw that all women there wore it. I am happy to follow their example today, even more so, as the Koran says women must not expose their face and skin. I must say that, at the beginning, I found it difficult to adapt to this new way of life, but now I am used to it”. With a sense of discipline in her voice, she confesses: “Sometimes, I miss the beautiful and colourful clothes I used to wear but I must overcome these desires.”
One rule: avoiding to draw men's attention
Mr. Zay Nuttin, headmaster at Al Muhajirin school and president of the Almuhajiria Association for the Development of Education for Muslims in Cambodia, offers a brushed up line of argument.
“The dress code is here to counter problems before they start appearing. Wearing the niqab therefore suppresses boys' desire towards girls. The more they hide under loose-fitting clothes, the greater their chances are to be free from any provocation or sexual harassment, because first of all, it is girls who trigger men's desire! Some believe this is ridiculous, but everywhere in the world, we can see girls following fashion currents dictated by beauty canons which favour juicy outfits. Look at today's society: rapes, sexual intercourse out of wed-lock... This is not good. And we can notice the efficiency of Islam in preventing these perversions when looking at the number of AIDS cases among Muslims!”
The headmaster cut his story short, saying with a determined voice: “Wearing the niqab is an efficient way for girls to keep themselves safe and sound”.
Coming back to the cases of rape, Mr. Zay Nuttin points an accusing finger at girls, who, according to him, are as guilty as their aggressors. “We want a ruling that condemns rapists. But we have to wonder who is really to blame? In order for justice to be dealt out, girls should also be condemned for kindling men's desire when they reveal their beauty! They must avoid being objects of temptation”, the director explained, forthright.
Azimas, a student from the Kampong Chhnang province, totally agrees with the director's views. In her opinion, Islam tends to reduce violence and to protect girls better from the troubles caused by men. “It is like a cat and mouse chase. If we don't hide well, the cat will catch us. By neglecting our physical appearance and not behaving decently, girls can arouse feelings among boys and the consequence will be a bad karma. I want to spare myself from this!”
Girls are seen as “precious stones”
Mr. Zay Nuttin explains that Islam highly prizes women, who are mainly considered as “mothers” at the heart of humankind. “Our religion aims at protecting them. They are like precious stones and must not be allocated a bad life, fail or end up as prostitutes, for example. This does not mean they lose their freedom when they wear the niqab. In their household's privacy and in front of their husband, they can dress as they like. They must only refrain from showing their hair and skin, with the exception of hands and feet, to men who are not members of their family. Islam requires women to unveil their beauty solely in front of their husband. Their dignity is thereby protected.”
Young Asmak also agrees with Mr. Zay Nuttin and underlines the fact that Muslim women do not have to work hard outside of their household since a husband holds the responsibility of providing food: “Freedom, for us, is not defined by the ability we are given to expose ourselves to men, but by our possibility to follow our beliefs and religious practices.”
Asmak is quite happy about not having any professional occupation. She comes from a wealthy background and claims she is ready to spend her life at home. “Women must not show themselves in front of men, but they keep their physical attributes aside for their husband, for whom they will put make-up on and look after themselves. It is therefore not unfair that a woman's husband has to work hard to provide maintenance and support for her...”
The second part of this article will be published on Thursday 04/09/08 http://cambodia.ka-set.info/culture-and ... 80903.html