Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The naked Apsara in Cambodia

Khmer Souvanapoum ​ (the golden land of the Khmer) is the facebook profile of a Khmer nationalist – one of thousands, who is active on facebook. On a daily basis, he produces racist tirades aimed at the Vietnamese, and especially the Vietnamese living in Cambodia.


Early 2015 saw the proliferation of a number of derisory and accusatory comments and articles, as well as an equally severe organisational response, following the online publication and circulation of several “pornographic” photographs depicting an “Asian woman” at a temple complex in Cambodia’s Angkor region. The Apsara Authority and Khmer-language media were quick to pounce on the incident and start a finger-pointing campaign.

However, lacking since the story broke has been a serious discussion about the ways in which Khmer women were represented, how expectations of Khmer women were conveyed, and whether they were helpful and (culturally) justified, or restrictive, demonstrating a subtle regulation of female expression and sexuality.

I offer no definitive answers here. Rather, I hope to spark a debate not only about the clear gendered characteristics of the Khmer-language media (and of national medias the world over) and its implications, as well as a discussion about gender representation in general.

The walls of the Angkor Wat temple complex, as well as those of Angkor Thom, the Bayon or Ta Prohm, among others, are adorned with dancing figures (apsaras) and guardians (devatas). Headley’s (2010) Khmer-English Dictionary defines apsara as a ‘celestial nymph, angel, divine female, celestial dancer.’ Historically, the apsara were believed to perform the role of providing entertainment for Cambodian Kings through the medium of traditional dance. Furthermore, it is not unusual to find these figures depicted nude from head-to-waist on the walls and bas-reliefs of the various complexes dotted around the Angkor region.

In late January 2015, the Phnom Penh Post reported that several images of a partially naked woman of Asian appearance, dressed to resemble the classical apsara dancers, were posted on a Chinese photo-sharing site under an account named: “WANIMAL”. The images were reported to have been taken at Banteay Kdei temple, located eastward of Angkor Thom. Before long the images found their way onto Facebook to be commented on and shared. What followed was an organisational and media reaction that, consciously or unconsciously, conflated expectations of Khmer women with Khmer culture and the Cambodian nation.

The Conflation of Femininity, Culture and the Nation

Set up by Royal Decree in 1995, the Apsara Authority (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA)) works alongside the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts ‘for the protection, the preservation and the enhancement of the national cultural heritage’. As a result, when the story broke the Apsara Authority found itself in the firing line of news reporters and civil society organisations eager to point out the Authority’s incompetence.

Chau Sun Kerya, a spokesperson at the Apsara Authority, was tasked with managing the fallout from the incident. She was quick to vocalise that the Authority regarded the pictures as insulting to Khmer culture, religion and identity, taken as they were on a site considered to be sacred. Furthermore, and echoing a statement made earlier by the Apsara Authority, the government affiliated Koh Santepheap newspaper reported that the images had a “serious impact” on the “the honour/prestige of Khmer women and Khmer civilisation” (phiap-tlai-tnoo nei niarey-pheet neung aaryathoa).

Furthermore, the Apsara Authority went to great lengths to establish the “foreignness” and inauthenticity of the images, emphasising that both the company responsible for posting the photographs online, as well as the model, were Chinese. Furthermore, working alongside UNESCO, the Authority has sought to ascertain if the pictures were even taken at Banteay Kdei, arguing that the images may have been photo-shopped. In addition to taking pressure off the Authority, which as been criticised for its ineffective policing of the historical site, proving the false origins of the images helps paint the whole episode as distinctly “un-Khmer,” products of an alien culture at odds with Cambodian morals and ethics.

The Khmer-language media has perpetuated these understandings by reinforcing the position adopted by the Apsara Authority. The opposition affiliated Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience) reported that the photographs “flouted” (choan-chhlii) Khmer culture and customs. The article went onto encourage relevant parties, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, to break from their silence, accept responsibility as well as locate and punish the perpetrator(s).

The underlying story here is one of nude images of an Asian woman posing at Banteay Kdei temple being conflated with emotions pertaining to the Angkor region’s sacredness, as well as to understandings of what is considered appropriate behaviour for Khmer women. By castigating WANIMAL as a Chinese company that often posts “obscene” (aasa-aaphieh) pornographic images, it became quickly clear that such “immoral” (a-selthoa) acts were contrary to acceptable (female) Cambodian norms.

This also leads to a wider debate about the broader framework of gendered norms operating through Cambodia’s national institutions. The maintenance of a correct “female reputation” is enshrined in the constitution: ‘The commerce of human beings, exploitation by prostitution and obscenity which affect the reputation of women shall be prohibited’. In addition, pornography is banned under article 14 of the Press Law which prohibits: ‘drawing or photographs depicting human genitalia, or naked pictures, unless published for educational purposes’ which negatively affect ‘the good customs of society’. Of course, it is at the discrimination of each individual reader as to whether such regulation is constructive, harmful or restrictive. Indisputable, however, is that the response to the “naked apsara controversy” has exposed particular expectations and beliefs regarding Khmer women.

The Flip Side: The Objectification of Female Bodies

On the flip side there is the enduring issue of the objectification and sexualisation of female bodies. And like the conflation of female bodies with national integrity, reputation and honour, this is not a solely Cambodian issue. Here in the UK has been an ongoing debate surrounding the issue of “Page 3 Girls.” Launched on November 17th 1970, The Sun’s page three depicts semi-nude women on a daily basis. The “No to Page 3” campaign argued that this practice ought to be stopped as it contributed to the sexualisation and objectification of female bodies. On the other side were page 3 models defending their choice to appear in the tabloid, criticising so-called “feminazis” who wished to regulate and censor free choice and expressions of a feminine alternative.

Such debates are difficult to resolve as they risk going around in circles. Both sides have their proponents. Those who equate female purity with the integrity of the nation see a justified means of maintaining national culture as well as a means to stave of the sexualisation of women observed in “the West.” Similarly, those who view “Page 3” as a crude form of female objectification must face off against those view it as a legitimate expression of choice. These issues and paradoxes lead to many questions: How should women be represented? What are appropriate/correct representations? Do such representations exist? And who should decide this? Is female nudity in all its forms conveying a negative body image of women? Can female nudity itself ever be considered a form of resistance or empowering?

As stated previously, I offer no definitive answers, only further questions. We should perhaps end on a caveat. As the previous section indicated, the issue of gender representation and regulation is an open book and we should not be complacent and believe that the gender debate is somehow done or finished.

Scott Rawlinson is a MA student in Southeast Asian Studies and Cambodian Language at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London


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