Cambodian Grrrl by Anne Elizabeth Moore

27th Mar 2012

Cambodian Grrrl by Anne Elizabeth Moore

Moore specifically set out with the aim of teaching the young women how to make ‘zines.

Armed with her experience of America’s underground culture (she was co-publisher of Punk Planet) and a strong DIY ethos (see: Unmarketable), she wanted to share her knowledge and skills in a project partly inspired by the Sandinistas who developed literacy programmes so that people could educate themselves, write their own histories and share them.

She knew that her students would be second generation Khmr Rouge survivors and that the educational system meant they would know little about the genocide that took 2 million Cambodian lives in the 1970s, but what she didn’t realise was how much she had to learn.

It’s worth mentioning here that whilst sceptics might jump to ‘western arts-activist type goes to poor country to Do Good’ conclusions, Moore is very open about her experiences, intentions and doubts.

After her first day: “I evaluated the last 24 hours and thought to myself: You came here to make zines?”

What follows, though the book is a slim 96 pages, is more than an essay or a travelogue as Moore gets to know the women and opens up discussion about sex trafficking, human rights issues in the face of globalisation and the importance of fighting for freedom of speech.

Initially, to overcome the language barrier, Moore turned to the thing that helps her to make sense of the world: music. As she describes in a Book Notes interview,

“to explain what zines were and could do—to young people who are taught to write via rote memorization, and who live under an oppressive regime where journalists are regularly threatened, harmed, or worse for printing facts about the government—I used music.”

Her playlist included tracks from Liz Phair (‘Extraordinary’: hoping the gritty driving guitar in the opening, Phair’s own sweet voice, and catchy tune would cause these young women to wander around the city singing, “I am extraordinary,” and that, somehow, the country would take notice) and Kathleen Hanna (‘I Wish I Was Him’: “because it precisely mirrored the conversations I had with these young women, who wanted to work in politics or do journalism or run banks—if only they’d been born men”).

The project was all about making connections, understanding differences and creating a sense of belonging for the students – a safe environment for them to explore their opinions, ask questions and not be afraid to say – or write – that they want change.

Cambodian Grrrl is written by Moore, but is all about the young women she lives with teaches and the problems they face in a country where the infrastructure is failing a large proportion of the population, bribery and corruption in the political and educational systems are rife and self-censorship is expected from all.

Writing, debating and sharing their views in print is a risk and the women in the book are protected by false names and their publications distributed mainly in tourist spots, written in English.

Moore’s next book, New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia (published later this year), documents a specific project that faced censorship in Cambodia and the US but had a profound effect on the young women involved and has the potential to reach many more. The Chbap Srei (Girl Law) is a 17th Century set of instructions for Cambodian women on how to behave and present yourself.

This code of conduct makes such recommendations as singing in “sweet voice”, averting your eyes when a man enters the room and remaining still if a man beats you.

The group of young women working with Moore decided to rewrite the Girl Law, to challenge the gender inequality and make a bold statement about human rights and the treatment of women in Cambodia.

It remains to be seen what the lasting impact of these projects will be, but in Cambodian Grrrl, Moore has produced a book that, as Mu Socha MP (Women’s Rights Leader, Sam Rainsy Party, Cambodia) says,  “proves to us the power of writing, of recording, and the importance of giving value to each other’s life.”

Cambodian Grrrl is available for just $7.95 from Cantankerous Titles or £5.39 on Amazon.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended for: Anyone who has ever sat down with a pile of photocopied pages, a mixtape, a notebook or a pen and wanted to say something.

Other recommended reading: The Road of Lost Innocence (Somaly Mam); A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution (eds. Tristan Taormino & Karen Green); Afghan Women’s Writing Project (website); Intensity, The 10th Anniversary Anthology (WriteGirl) ; Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (Sara Marcus)

Alex Herod