About being an alien in Phnom Penh

Arriving at a small village in Cambodia to conduct some interviews, I sometimes
could not help myself from feeling like an alien. ‘I mean I don´t have green
skin…or do I?’, I would whisper doubtfully to my research assistant while being
critically examined by the village inhabitants. Nevertheless, being a stranger
within a different country is not new to me – and everybody who has travelled
or worked abroad is likely to have made similar experiences. However, what was new to me is the fact that people
can even feel like aliens in their own country.

My discovery of
aliens in Phnom Penh started with the participation in the first session of the
Social Norms Learning Trajectory of Oxfam Novib’s Women’s Empowerment Team. This
inspired me to reflect on the impact of gender norms within my field of
interest: the civil and political participation of women. How are women
expected to behave within their roles as women, daughter, mother, and wife
within their society? And how do these expectations influence the opportunities
of women to participate in governance?

In the last 12
months, I have studied how women reconcile their female identities with
political identities within two different contexts. For my master thesis, I
researched how Dalit women in Nepal strive to reconcile their roles as wife and
mother, member of the Dalit community, and equal citizen. For my internship at
the Oxfam Novib Academy I explored how women in Cambodia fulfil their daily
responsibilities as commune councillor, in addition to their responsibilities
as local community member, wife and mother.

Despite many
differences, women in both Nepal and Cambodia aim to reconcile a political
identity with a female identity that has been defined as non-political during
most historical periods. Inevitably, while doing this my respondents challenge
the restriction of women to the private sphere. All of my female respondents in
Nepal and Cambodia take an active role as citizen and commune councillor in
their local communities.

councilors discuss about their high workload in the Takeo province, Cambodia

However, while
claiming a role in the public sphere, the women do not fundamentally rethink
their roles within the private sphere. They rather try to comply with the dominant
social norms that define how a good mother and wife should act. This results in
a very high workload and pressure on the women to be criticized in one or
several of their roles as wife and mother as well as citizen or councillor.

Regarding the unequal
distribution of duties and responsibilities within the private sphere, it is
remarkable that my respondents manage to fulfil their public roles as citizen
and councillor at least as conscientiously and successfully as their male
counterparts. During fieldwork in both countries, I was deeply impressed by the
commitment and ability of these women to handle such a high workload and
pressure to perform well in their various roles.

understandably not all women are willing and/or able to carry this high burden in
order to participate politically. In order to achieve equal participation of
women and men in the public sphere, it is thus necessary to rethink the roles
of women and men within the public and private spheres. To put it
differently, when women discuss and face their responsibilities as citizens and
councillors, as it is the case in Nepal and Cambodia, men and women also have
to rethink their roles as husband and wife as well as mother and father.

Members of a Dalit women group in Palpa, Nepal reflect on
their roles and responsibilities as citizens

Whereas my
respondents mainly challenge the gender norms within the public sphere, I also
met young people in Cambodia who question traditional gender norms within the
private sphere. Inspired by their stories, I invited three of these ‘gender
pioneers’ to share their experiences and thoughts with us. Click on here to download the audio track and learn about their motivations and ways to challenge traditional gender norms,
and to understand why the participants sometimes feel like aliens in Phnom

 The participants

Heng Thou (35 years)


“This is why I keep wearing it (her outfit and
jewellery) as I want to show the men that this is just the way that we like it,
it is not the same as the way that you judge and I keep wearing it until the
men change their perception”

Touch Seyha (27 years)

Master student of ‘Counselling and Clinical Psychology’ at the Royal
University of Phnom Penh

need to try what we can, to me I don’t think that a big thing needs to change
but I just think it has to start from me”

Rotvatey Sovann (25

Master student of ’Social
Work’ at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia

“My relatives told me you are not going to be loved
anymore because your parents are going to have a son. That is when I start to
have this question in my mind, and I start asking: What is the difference
between a son and a daughter?” 


Inga Ferber (26

Research Master
student of ‘International Development Studies’ at the University of Amsterdam,
Netherlands and Intern at the Oxfam Novib Academy

Even though I share
the uncomfortable experience of the interviewees to feel like an alien, it has
always been a temporary state for me until I return home. This makes it
relatively easy to accept this feeling as after all, I might not come from a
different planet but at least from a different continent. However, accepting
this feeling is not an option for the interviewees who have no home planet or
country to return to. The interviewees thus had to find another way to deal
with their feelings: They decided to engage in a dialogue with others to
explain and discuss their behaviour and standpoints. This way is certainly more
challenging and at times frustrating. However, it also bares the chance that
other people do not longer feel alienated but inspired from the young gender


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