The low status of Cambodian women today is in stark contrast with the purported power of their past counterparts, but according to Dr Trudy Jacobsen, Cambodia’s goddesses were never lost – historians had simply been looking for them in the wrong places.
Jacobsen, author of Lost Goddesses, attempts to solve the mystery of how the change in women’s status came about, by analyzing the denial of female power in Khmer history from the early 3rd century until the present.
The 35-year-old Australian national is the newly appointed assistant professor in mainland Southeast Asian history at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in the US. This follows positions at Australia’s Monash University and Griffith University, the Swedish School for Advanced Asia-Pacific Studies and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Jacobsen’s debut book is based on her PhD thesis, which came about when she discovered very little had been written about the history of women in Cambodia. The topic was personal to Jacobsen, as she regards Cambodia, where she spent most of her teenage years, as home.
“My Cambodian friends say I have a foreign face but a Cambodian heart,” she says, adding a fortuneteller even claimed she had been a Cambodian monk in a previous life.
Because her parents work in development, Jacobsen has grown up all over the world, including Sulawesi, where she spent her early childhood. She first came to Cambodia in 1988, when it reopened to the international community.
Her globetrotting widened her linguistic repertoire. In addition to Khmer, she understands French, Indonesian, Russian, Sanskrit and Pali, which has aided her historical detective work, particularly in reexamining sources.
“For Lost Goddesses, I was able to go back through all of the records, Sanskrit, Pali, Old Khmer, French archival records, the Cambodian media, print media and newsreels from the 1960s, books, so-called traditional literature and actually see where women featured.”
What she found was that women’s voices had been left out of Khmer history because Western historians often misinterpreted power in the Khmer context.
“In the West we have this idea that you have to be politically powerful if you are indeed to have power,” she says. “In Cambodia, the unseen *domestic, spiritual* world is as important as the seen world.”
Jacobsen’s willingness to challenge received history means she is no stranger to controversy.
In 2006, she wrote an article “Kampuchea Krom: The facts behind the friction” published in The Phnom Penh Post, in which she argued that the usual reasons Cambodians give for hating the Vietnamese were invalid according to 18th-century Cambodian chronicles.
Her assertions prompted hate mail and death threats from Cambodians in Australia and the USA.
“I received emails saying things like *we may live in Long Beach but we know that your house is the one with the two red pots outside’. which was true!” she says.
She attributes the extreme response to the sensitivity of people in diaspora regarding their country of origin, and to the Khmer culture in which critical thinking is anathema.
“Critical thinking is anti-Buddhism; you don’t struggle against your lot in life,” she says. “Also, the education system as implemented by the French in the colonial period hasn’t changed, and we can’t talk about education under the Khmer Rouge. . These regimes have one thing in common: Don’t question us.”
So she aims to stimulate critical thinking among her Cambodian students, especially on a nation-building course she teaches as part of a summer program organized by the US-based Council on International Educational Exchange and the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap.
Jacobsen also believes historical knowledge can contribute to Cambodia’s development, as “there are so many conflicts and contemporary issues that have their roots in the past that a greater understanding of the past can only elicit better solutions”.
And solutions are needed, she believes. Although there has been much development in Cambodia in the past 20 years, she points out it has not significantly benefited rural Cambodians, particularly in terms of education, because of problems with the judiciary and unsustainable development programs that lack cultural understanding.
“In Cambodia, nobody is ever free as an individual; everyone is at the mercy of their patron, their client. The individual is not the smallest social unit, the family is,” she says.
“That makes a big difference when you’re trying to impose Western ideas such as feminism and democracy on a culture like this, because in the West those ideas come from 200 years of post-Enlightenment rationale and reasoning.”
She adds that expatriates in Cambodia often risk adding to problems, especially if seduced by a lifestyle with many luxuries and few consequences.
“If some foreigners were more accountable for their actions or had a better sense of morality about what they were doing here, perhaps Cambodians would see that it’s not OK to keep perpetuating corruption and these standards,” she says, noting as an example the contradiction of people working in anti-trafficking visiting prostitutes.
For these reasons, she is excited about joining NIU, as the institution aims to use in-depth knowledge of the region to implement sustainable programs. Sending students to Southeast Asia to learn languages there, rather than being expensively trained in the USA, is one of the primary steps.
She is also excited about a new project: A book on sexual contracts in Myanmar and Cambodia.
While her focus will be less on women and more on social practices such as sex trafficking, she plans to continue unveiling the hidden histories of people not traditionally considered important, such as prostitutes, rather than the so-called “great men” like Pol Pot.
“It’s a lot harder to do that, of course, because there were no records kept about them, but if you’re a good historian, you can often read between the lines and find history for people that have been forgotten for years,” she says.
“These are actually the people that make up Cambodia. Not the people at the top, but the people at the bottom.”