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Women wrestle with Cambodia's sporting taboo

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PHNOM PENH - The gym mats glisten with humidity and sweat as Cambodian wrestling star Chov Sotheara grapples with her male trainer, crashing through a cultural taboo against women in sport with every tussle and throw.

In conservative Cambodia gender lines are clearly defined with woman expected to adhere to 'feminine' norms of behaviour and appearance. They are certainly not meant to be throwing men over.


But without female partners to practice with, 33-year-old Chov Sotheara has no other choice.

"It's hard for parents and friends to understand that as a woman you can also enjoy sport," she said from a Phnom Penh gym that feels a far cry from the Rio Olympics, during which she represented her country last summer.

"In Cambodian society, people say it's not good for women to play sports because after a while they will start to look like men and no-one would want to marry them," she added, beaming as she swept her long hair into place.

Cambodia's poor sporting infrastruture matches its status as one of Southeast Asia's least wealthy nations.

It boasts precious few sporting success stories -- although Cambodia's first and only Asian Games gold medal was won by a woman taekwondo fighter in 2014.

Women make up only 25 percent of the kingdom's top athletes and only 10 percent of coaches.

For Chov Sothera the statistical imbalance plays out in a lack of female training partners.

- Fighting for change -


Until as recently as 2007 schoolgirls were taught the "Chbab Srey" -- a code of conduct delivered through short poems that urged women to demonstrate moral virtue, 'polite, timid' manners and absolute subservience to husbands.

Those ideas have calcified into attitudes with dangerous consequences for women.

A United Nations study in 2013 found that a quarter of Cambodian women are victims of physical or sexual violence by their spouses -- much of which goes unpunished.

Women also lag men in educational attainment and employment.

But sporting moves are afoot to rewrite their lines.

At Skateistan, a skate park established in 2011, an equal number of young women and men wait their turn to hare down the ramps, whooping and cheering their peers on.

"We want to know who these women are, to give them confidence and courage because girls in Cambodia are so shy to participate in society or in sports," said Chan Sangva, known as "Tin", who leads the skate workshops in an indoor arena ringed by bright graffiti murals.

That ethos has worked for some.

"Skatebaording builds my spirit, it gives me confidence. It releases stress... it makes me happy," said Puth Chan Chhorvy, 15, who has used the park for one-and-a-half years.

But for the shiest young women, joining mixed sessions is still jarring.

So the non-governmental organisation which runs the skate park has built in discreet areas where they can practice out off sight.

Sport is gradually opening room for women, explains Vath Chamroeun, secretary general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC).

But he gives a startling example of misinformation to illustrate the extent of the cultural barriers that must first be hurdled.

"For example, a lot of people believe that when women play sport they could lose their virginity," he says.

To knock down such damaging myths, the NOCC has set up a committee to encourage more women to participate in sport with an eye on the 2023 Southeast Asian Games, which Cambodia will host for the first time.

The competition that garners little global attention but is fiercely contested within the region, giving lesser known athletes the chance to shine.

"Women athletes can act as role models for our country. They show that sport doesn't have a negative impact on their life ... really it's the opposite," he adds.

But it remains an uphill task, with restrictive gender norms and ideals of beauty conniving to deprive women of the freedom to pick up any sport.

"Outdoor sports are seen as very bad for women because you are exposed to the sun and the ideal is to have skin that is as white as possible," says Nary Ly, who at Rio became the first Cambodian women to compete for her country in the marathon.

"And sport develops your muscles which people consider unattractive for women."

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Muslim Global: Women wrestle with Cambodia's sporting taboo
Women wrestle with Cambodia's sporting taboo
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