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Empowerment is in the eye of the beholder

For a term that is nearly ubiquitous in discussions about gender equality, especially in the context of the developing world, “empowerment” can be tricky to define. That is why this year Schubert is making her third trip to Cambodia, where she hopes to better understand what empowerment looks like in different cultures and value systems.

In 2008, Schubert—currently a doctoral student in the Department of Religion’s Theology, Ethics, and Culture program—made her first, three-month visit to Phnom Penh, working for a local non-governmental organization (NGO), Project Against Domestic Violence. In summer 2010, she returned to Cambodia with another organization, the Methodist Missions. This January, she left for a 10-month research trip funded by a Fulbright Scholarship.

This third trip was fueled by questions and observations from her first two journeys to the country. In particular, she was interested in the disconnect between how NGOs and local Cambodian women understood empowerment. One way in which this disconnect crystallizes is in how they view the chbap srey, a code of conduct for women (in Khmer—the Cambodian language—chbap means “law” and srey means “women”).

The chbap srey instructs young girls and adult women in proper comportment—both in society and in the home. For many, this instruction is problematic. In the 2004 country report to CEDAW (the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), NGOs working in Cambodia strongly criticized the chbap srey, claiming it “legitimizes discrimination against women and impedes women’s full enjoyment of their human rights and the achievement of equality between men and women in Cambodian society.”

Schubert is familiar with the book and agrees there are passages that seem objectionable: “Some of the advice is, ‘Don’t think of yourself as equal to your husband; you should serve him. If he is angry, you should go to your room and think; don’t yell back.’”

However, Schubert—who has been learning Khmer for the past four years—refrains from blanket condemnation of the text. In fact, she sees some value to it. “In some contexts, this is bad advice. But there’s also good advice in the chbap srey.”

These mixed feelings are partly ascribed to her conversations with Cambodian women pastors and Buddhist “nuns”; these women hold leadership positions and are respected in society. These women were also raised on the text of the chbap srey (the book is often taught in school) and, as Schubert discovered, still largely embrace it.

“These women have liberal values, but they also respect traditional rules. They often think it is important to have a station and fill a role. What these women are experiencing is different than how NGOs view it,” she said.

One example is the level of ordination in Theravadin Buddhist countries—such as Cambodia. Women are unable to achieve as high a level of ordination as male monks. Yet, Schubert has spoken with Cambodian Buddhist “nuns” who are happy with this system; they do want to join the institution of ordination and are happy in their separate religious sphere.

“The idea of equality is important, and it certainly seems universal to me—and pretty much to Westerners in general. But traveling to Cambodia has nuanced my view. Our norms are not universal or obvious; they are constructed values,” Schubert said. “I think NGOs could improve more people’s lives by understanding that. They can be more effective if they can learn how everything works together in different cultures instead of transposing their own culture onto others.”

Reconciling conflicting viewpoints—how NGOs view the lives of Cambodian women and how Cambodian women view themselves—is at the heart of what Schubert hopes to do on her current trip. Schubert is doing observations, semi-structured interviews with Buddhist “nuns” and women pastors, and archival research of NGOs in that country. Through this work she hopes to introduce new ways of understanding empowerment.

“I really want to improve people’s lives,” she said. “But I am wary of the idea of liberation. I think we first need to address some of the presuppositions we have. Hopefully that will get us to some even deeper underpinnings of what empowerment really is.”

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