Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 26, August 2011
Trudy Jacobsen

Lost Goddesses:
The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History

Gendering Asia, no. 4. Copenhagen S., Denmark: NIAS Press
ISBN: 978-8776940010 (pbk), 327 pp.

reviewed by Larissa Sandy

  1. Most visitors to Cambodia are familiar with the bare-breasted apsara adorning the walls of the historical Angkor Vat temple complex. In the Western imaginary these female figures depicted in the bas reliefs are believed to be 'dancing girls' or 'temple prostitutes', yet as Trudy Jacobsen reveals in her book Lost Goddesses, apsara were female divinities that could move between the celestial and mundane worlds and change shape at will. Renowned for beauty, grace and arousing men's desires, apsara embody one aspect of female power in Cambodia. Jacobsen's analysis, however, goes beyond apsara and other female divinities as she considers the relationship of women to power spanning Cambodia's long, 2000-year history.
  2. In her introduction, Jacobsen explains the framework she developed to investigate women and power in Cambodia's history. Jacobsen rightly takes issue with Western frameworks for understanding power, which are founded on post-Enlightenment reasoning and use European historical examples and contexts. Power, she argues, has been (and still is) linked to cosmological and supernatural forces in Southeast Asia, and frameworks that situate power in economic production, political decision-making and control of the military are not appropriate for undertaking an analysis of the relationship of women to power in Cambodia. Key to her contextualisation of power in Cambodia is the concept of khsae (literally cords), and through her exposition of khsae Jacobsen demonstrates how power in Cambodia rests upon a vast array and complex network of social relationships linking people. Khsae, Jacobsen informs us, are familial, institutional or political bonds often cemented through marriage or patron-client relationships, and khsae relations are premised upon the unquestioning acceptance of unequal relations between people, with some entitled to lead and others to follow, which she suggests must be taken into account when analysing power relations in Cambodia.
  3. The book's ten chapters are a tour de force traversing Cambodia's 2000-year history and painstakingly document through a variety of sources the position and status of women throughout the country's history. Chapter two, Devi, Rajñi, Dasi, Mat (Goddess, Queen, Slave, Mother), describes the position and status of women in the earliest period of Cambodian history for which we have evidence (3rd–9th centuries) and considers the power that women wielded during this time. Jacobsen outlines how women had important social rights and obligations, including property ownership, held important positions at court, were educated and participated in economic and religious life alongside their male counterparts. But more importantly a very specific power was accorded to women who were believed to be human manifestations of the land. This leads Jacobsen to argue that marriage alliances were political tools of great significance and this belief that women represented the land was an important source of female power and authority in Cambodia. Jacobsen demonstrates how women's embodiment with the land was the factor that established the right of the man involved to rule the land as its representative, in the form of the woman, had given him in the act of marriage. Chapter three considers changes in women's status during the Angkorian period (9th–15th centuries) and expands on some of the losses we start to see in female power and authority, chiefly under the influence of Brahmanical values as epigraphy and iconography began to reflect a growing patriarchal perspective. Key among these losses was the representation of female goddesses as autonomous from their male counterparts. Previously, female goddesses were represented as linked through marriage to male gods, but were not depicted as dependent on or inferior to male gods. Indicating a shift towards female dependency, goddesses were re-positioned as wives and their status represented as inferior to male gods. However, despite this shift in representation, Jacobsen argues that historical sources indicate that women continued to be perceived as the intermediaries through which access to land was granted, held positions in court of high social standing and owned land and goods, with slaves being listed as among women's goods. Matrilineal reckoning continued to be practised and among slaves, kinship was reckoned solely by matrilineal descent, which also suggests the important role that women played in political legitimation. Jacobsen argues that it was during this period that a contrast emerged between the ideal and everyday life, for while the depictions in the inscriptions and sculptures suggest otherwise, women continued to enjoy access to power and authority and women and men continued to actively contribute to Cambodian society.
  4. Chapter four charts the period of Cambodian history in which there was a shift from Brahmanical religions to Theravada Buddhism, commonly referred to as the 'middle period' (middle of 15th–18th centuries). Jacobsen's analysis deals consummately with the paucity of sources for this period, and her examination of the available sources shows that despite the change from Brahmanical religions to Buddhism and the increasing patriarchal perspective in epigraphy and iconography, there was little change to women's actual status and position during this time.
  5. Chapters five and six cover the period leading up to the establishment of the French Protectorate in Cambodia (1864). It is in this period that Jacobsen documents the gradual erosion of female power and authority. Central to this decline was the Cbpab Srei or Codes of Conduct for Women written by the elite during this period, and which placed women in an inferior and subordinate position to men. Similar to the earlier Brahmanical sources, these elite-produced literary texts attempted to constrain women and limit their power and authority. Jacobsen argues that at the time that the Cbpap Srei were written, they did not necessarily reflect reality because women enjoyed full protection under the law, continued to actively participate in economic and religious life and played important roles in the supernatural realm, with girls and boys enjoying complementary rites-of-passage ceremonies.
  6. Chapter seven, Cherchez la femme, considers Cambodia's colonial period (1864–1953), and in this chapter Jacobsen documents substantial and significant decline in female power and prestige. She shows how the French colonial administration systematically devalued and removed women from areas where they played significant roles and placed controls over women in areas where they had previously exercised agency. However, in areas outside of the influence of colonial policy (chiefly marital and ritual practices and the supernatural realm), women continued to exercise power and influence. Jacobsen also illustrates how texts like the Cbpap Srei started to exercise an undue influence over women's lives and roles as the Cambodian nationalist movement came to position the literature produced by the elites in the nineteenth century as representing 'traditional' Cambodia, a Cambodia they believed to be unsullied by the corrupting influence of the French. She shows how the Cbpap Srei and a return to the ultra conservative 'traditional' gender roles espoused in these texts was positioned as a form of opposition to French rule in the nationalist movement.
  7. Chapters eight and nine take in the post-independence and Khmer Rouge years (1954–1979) and show how, despite the enactment of policies to advance women's access to power, female power and authority continued to decline and deteriorate. Jacobsen argues that this was, and still is because of deeply ingrained male attitudes and 'traditional' gender norms which maintained the idea that men were superior to women. She develops this theme further in chapters ten and eleven, which examine the place of women in Cambodia's long years of reconstruction. Jacobsen documents the struggle the country faced with globalisation and the demand for gender equality and the apparent loss of cultural identity this would entail, with Cambodian women depicted as the repositories of Cambodian culture and 'traditions'. She suggests that since the rise of the nationalist movement, women were cast as the bearers of 'tradition' and the upholders of 'traditional' Cambodian culture and values (a 'tradition' constructed largely by elite men and based on idealised and ultra-conservative gender roles), and this has resulted in them being denied access to the power and authority they once enjoyed. Her book illustrates the moral paradox facing Cambodian women: as the upholders of culture, women have to remain 'traditional' so Cambodian culture is not lost in the face of modernisation. She shows how women struggle with ambiguous social conditions and are constrained from accessing political and economic power, while continuing to heavily influence the domestic and supernatural realms.
  8. Contrary to popular perceptions, which suggest the relative powerlessness of Cambodian women, Jacobsen's book shows that throughout the country's history, Cambodian women had access to and wielded power and authority. However, this has not necessarily been in conformity with or in ways that accord with Western constructs of power. It is hardly surprising that Jacobsen traces the denial of women's power and authority to the early years of colonisation and the investment of gender identities with notions surrounding 'tradition'. Jacobsen laments on the absence of the female voice in Cambodian history and her book is a significant step towards introducing this into the record, and it is an important contribution to the field, and in particular to Cambodian history and gender studies. Her meticulous collection and examination of historical texts is to be praised and students and scholars of Cambodia and Southeast Asia, history and gender studies will find great value in her work.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 02 August 2011 1311