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So, Farina . "Cambodia, Muslim Women’s Issues and Groups in." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 22, 2021. <>.


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Cambodia, Muslim Women’s Issues and Groups in

Until the arrival of the Cham from Champa Kingdom, which is now central and southern Vietnam, and Chvea-Malay (Javanese descendants) from Malaysia and Indonesia into Cambodia at around the seventeenth century, there was no evidence of Islam in Cambodia. Long before their migration, the Cham was an Indianized kingdom, influenced by Indian culture that had spread along the maritime trade routes of Southeast Asia in the early centuries C.E. Islam was believed to be introduced to the kingdom through Arab traders around the thirteenth century and began to override the existing Indian influences. As for Chvea-Malay, Haji Hasim ibn Abdul Rahman, hakim and elder in Tuol Ngauk village, Kandal province, relates that Guru Haji Abdullah, younger brother of Sultan Abdul Rahman of Kedah, fled to Cambodia with his followers from Kedah, Malaysia, because he did not want to become a sultan and rule his kingdom. He stopped in Tuol Ngok village, Kandal province, northern Cambodia, and preached Islam as a belief system and a way of life. The remnant of his tomb remains in the village until the early twenty-first century.

Other scholars suggest that Chvea-Malay migrated from Minangkabau, West Sumatra, to Cambodia (Ethnic Groups in Cambodia, 2010). Cham and Chvea did not communicate with each other well. The Chvea-Malays, who were already Muslims, were believed to convert more of the Cham to Islam. The Cham accused the Chvea-Malay of persecuting Cham people in the aftermath of the Vietnamese incursion (Ethnic Groups in Cambodia, 2010). However, later they both embraced Islam strictly and cooperated, with the exception of a small group of Cham called Cham Jahed, which still practices syncretic Islam in the Champa tradition. For example, they pray once a week. Because both ethnic groups have adopted Sunni Islam, including its protocol and dress, it has become difficult to distinguish the Cham and the Chvea-Malay physically except when they speak their languages. The Cham speak the Cham language, whereas Chvea speak mostly Khmer with a little bahasa. Osborne (2004) estimates the Chvea-Malay population at 15 percent of Cambodia’s Muslims. Combined with their local beliefs and tradition (non-Islamic practice), Cham and Chvea-Malay (thereafter, Cham Muslims) are making efforts to modernize and adopt the new transnational Islam. The local beliefs still practiced by many Cham Muslims include visitation to an ancestor’s tomb (ziyārah) and using the lunar calendar to match a couple or decide on a couple’s marriage.

During the Colonial (1863–1954), Sangkum Reastr Niyum (1955–1970), and Lon Nol periods (1970–1975), Islam was tolerated, but there was some discrimination regarding its practice, norms, and beliefs. The discriminatory behavior and attitudes came from their lack of understanding, misconceptions about Islam, and ethnic jokes. This was reduced gradually through social integration and public awareness about Islam and Cham. In an effort to integrate Cham Muslims fully, Prince Norodom Sihanouk gave Cham Muslims the title “Khmer Islam” in the 1960s. Socially, this move yielded an enormously positive outcome. Ethnically, it seemed to put their identity at risk because they are now called Khmer Islam instead of Cham or Chvea (“Islam in Kampuchea,” 1987; Kiernan, 1996; Ethnic Groups in Cambodia, 2010).

In recent history, the Democratic Kampuchea (DK), better known as the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime and ruled by a group of Cambodian communists (1975–1979), forbade Islam and its ritual practices. Religious leaders like the Grand Muftī (Highest Council of Islamic Religious Affairs in Cambodia) and ʿulamāʾ were targeted for execution. Islamic schooling was prohibited, and Qurʾanic schools were closed down. Mosques were desecrated. In the aftermath of the genocide, Islam, like Buddhism, had to be started from the ground up (So, 2011). The regimes following the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea (1979 to the early twenty-first century) have been sympathetic toward Islam and its people, as they all experienced the same horrific events. The current Cambodian government recently issued a directive allowing Cham Muslim women to wear Muslim attire and headscarves in school and have allowed more religious freedom.

Cham Muslims and Islam in Cambodia are administered by Grand Muftī Hj Kamaruddin Bin Yusof (Oknha Sos Kimry), who was appointed to this lifetime position in 2003. Below him are the imam khet (provincial imam), imam srok (district imam), ḥākim, deputy ḥākim, and tuon (religious teacher). However, Oknha Knuor Kaitoam is the leader of about 35,000 Cham Jahed. These people are not under the muftī; they report directly to their leader. Approximately 700,000 Cham Muslims are scattered in communities throughout Cambodia, with around 400 mosques across the country.

According to Cham Muslim leaders, several madrasahs have been established since the 1990s in Phnom Penh and in Kampong Cham, Kampot, Kandal, Kampong Chhnang, Preah Sihanouk, Battambang, and Takeo provinces. A few provide both religious and secular education, whereas the rest offer only religious education. According to the Ministry of Cults and Religions, 173 madrasahs and Islamic schools have been registered with the ministry so far. Some prominent schools include:

  • • Tablīghī Jamāʿat (Dakwah Tablīghī)’s Al Hida Yah Hafiz school in Trea 1 village in the Kampong Cham province, founded by Haji Ali and Imam Suleiman Ibrahim, leaders of the Dakwah Tablīghī group. Haji Aly also founded two other schools in southwestern provinces of Cambodia. Nurul Hidayah was founded in 2005 in Kampot province and another school in Preah Sihanouk province. The schools teach figh (Islamic jurisprudence), nahu (grammar and linguistics), and hafiz Qurʾān based on Dakwah Tablīghī principles.
  • • Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), a Kuwait-based charity, in Chom Chao has several branches in Kampong Chhnang, Battambang, Takeo, and Kampong Cham provinces. These schools offer both religious and secular education to orphans and the poor.
  • • Four Islamic schools in Phnom Penh and Kampong Chhnang founded by muftī are run and supervised by several religious leaders in the area. These schools offer only religious education.
  • • Umm al-Qura school, renamed Cambodian Islamic Center after being closed for several years, was reopened in 2004 and teaches both Islamic and secular education from grades seven to twelve.

Besides these madrasahs, young Muslim children study the Qurʾān and muqaddam (elementary Islamic book) at tuon’s (religious teachers) houses and local schools.

Overview of Women’s Experience and Activities.

Cham Muslim women make up over half the Cham Muslim population according to the survey done by muftī and collected by the author. This survey indicates that Cham Muslims consist of about 6 percent of the overall thirteen million Cambodian population. Most practice the five pillars of Islam. Women have struggled hard to overcome many challenges to achieve what they have today, including both religious and secular issues.

Few women had the opportunity to go to public school during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era. This barrier was caused by cultural pressure and Cham tradition, which held that women should only do household chores. They studied the Qurʾān and sunnah in their villages for a short period of time when they were young. However, many Cham Muslim men were able to pursue their Islamic studies around the country and in other places such as Malaysia, Egypt, and Pakistan (“Islam in Kampuchea,” 1987). Some women did attend public school during the Lon Nol regime but then stopped due to fighting between the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and Lon Nol forces in the 1970s. Under these two regimes, no Cham Muslim woman was reported to be a prominent figure (“Islam in Kampuchea,” 1987). Under the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) communist regime, women were forced to abandon their Islamic religion and the women’s code of conduct prescribed by Islam. They were forced to cut their hair short, remove headscarves, and relinquish the role of mother and wife as laid out in the Qurʾān (Schleifer, 1996). Instead, women were forced to do hard labor and submit themselves to the Khmer Rouge organization. In these harsh conditions, women were caught between religious authority and survival; they had to bear some moral obligation to religion and find ways to survive. Despite this challenge, most women faced this terrible choice through compromise and hidden religious practice.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, women, mostly widows, who made up about 65 percent of all survivors, became the driving force in restoring the communities and the country because so many men had perished (Wagner, 2002). They worked to reconstruct communities and reformulate ethnic, religious, and social identities at personal and community levels. They now are involved in national projects and strive to prevent genocide from happening again by speaking out and participating in the Khmer Rouge tribunal. They now help to rebuild mosques, provide moral and spiritual supports to strengthen Islam, safeguard their communities through a state-imposed K-5 project (1985–1989), an attempt by the Vietnamese-support People’s Republic of Kampuchea to clear the KR guerrilla forces, wage peace, find justice, contribute personal stories to the collective memory, transmit tradition and culture to their children, and teach them to be good Muslims. (So, 2011).

However, women’s efforts in producing a new generation and reconstructing the community have not improved their social status. No women are present in the religious structure, and none have been reported as assistants to any religious figures. Lack of skills, education, and the limits of traditional culture cause women to lag behind men. Even though a new generation of women is rising up to demand education and a presence in the public sphere, they will end up with the same outcome without empowerment and recognition. As Teur Sros, Islamic Local Development Organization’s Program Officer and female Cham Muslim survivor describes, the next generation of women can make a difference in their communities if they have the proper education, empowerment, and commitment to change.

The Impact Of Globalization and Transnational Influences.

A major challenge facing Muslims in Cambodia, as well as elsewhere, is the debate over the interpretation of Qurʾānic verses and the ḥadīth and whether, as some very strict interpreters claim, moderate interpretations are the result of transnational influences. Globalization and transnational influences have both positive and negative impacts, with resulting pressures on women. The flow of goods, people, and information across the globe all create new opportunities and challenges for Muslims in Cambodia; it brings people closer and broadens people’s understanding of each other. Despite different ethnicities and cultures among Muslims in Cambodia and elsewhere, people of the same faith feel that they bear the same identity (Islam) and that helps them to unite and respect each other. It enables women to see the larger world and encourages some to leave home so that they can earn a living to support the family. According to the author’s interviews with women and their families, women have migrated to Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and other countries to seek job opportunities to help their male counterparts.

However, the integration of global and regional forces with local processes has been perceived both as a threat to Muslim identities and as a benefit to the development of a new transnational Islam. This causes some problems for women trying to catch up with globalization, but it also pushes back many women who cannot keep pace with the advancement. Worse, some Cham Muslim women are affected by a harsh response of some orthodox Muslim men toward materialism and transnational influences. They see Western ideology as a threat that exposes people to corrupting ideas and weakens their religious strength and beliefs. For example, the Dakwah Tablīghī, a new movement of Islam that has been in Cambodia since 1989, emphasizes sunnah in the Muslim community and encourages Cham Muslims to embrace this. Also, the Wahhabi-influenced Salafī movement (kaum muda), which emerged in the 1950s, censors the old form of Islam and states that the community has been contaminated with a non-Islamic element. This group has appealed to Cham Muslims to purify Islam (Hefner, 2010). However, both groups vehemently disagree with each other over the translation of the Qurʾān into other languages. Although the Salafī encourages the translation of the Qurʾān, the Dakwah Tablīghīi forbids this move, claiming that this is against Allah’s will as the translation can deviate from the original meaning.

Like other religions, power distribution in Islamic religious affairs is not equal. Although male group leaders (amir) give sermons to both male and female followers, female group leaders read ḥukum (laws), faḍīlah (merit), and Allah’s punishments excerpted from Qurʾān and ḥadīth only to their female companions. These excerpts—outlined Qurʾānic verses, kisah Ṣaḥābah, Ṣifat, Fāḍilah solat,(praying) Tablīgh, Zikr, and Ḥadīth—are compiled into several sets of books by Mawlana Zakarryya Kandavy and Mawlana Muhammad Ilyes, reviewed by Haji Suleiman Ibrahim, leader of the Dakwah Tablīghī, and translated into Khmer by Abdul Koyyaum ibn Yusof and Haji Dalan ibn Yusof. In each sermon (bayān), men and women are divided by a curtain used as a barrier so that men and women cannot see each other while sermons are delivered. In addition, women are told to cover their bodies completely from head to toe (awrah). The covering of awrah and strict practice may protect women from harassment and evils and teach them to be good persons and Muslims, but it limits their leadership roles and participation in society. A sense of pluralistic Islam, different practices as well as religious restriction, can polarize the community, moving it backward.

Gender Relations–Cooperation between Men and Women.

Gender relations in the Cham Muslim community is open but with some limitations. Marriage is a central element of Muslim communities, leading to procreation and productive lives. Premarital sex is prohibited, and every Muslim is expected to get married before having sexual intercourse. Polygamy is not common among Cham Muslim people; only a few cases are found. Men hold religious positions and are the main preachers of religious texts, whereas women are considered listeners and capable of contributing little.

Cham Muslim women and men cooperate well in some aspects, but men dominate other aspects with less representation from women. Three areas describe men and women’s roles. In household chores, regarded as women’s private sphere, women are supposed to bear full responsibility. Women look after children and maintain the wealth and property of the family. In family affairs, men play a vital role in decision making, and women have little voice. The husband teaches his wife, and the wife teaches her children. Men administer religious affairs and security, as well as any kind of conflict resolution. Women have little role in community resolution, as only men are included in the religious structure. Although some religious teachers are women, they still have little voice, if any at all, in this issue. Nonetheless, men and women cooperate well in ceremonial events or other religious festivities such as mawlid, wedding, and jamuan (religious gathering), where they help each other cook; although they eat together afterward, they sit at separate tables. The absence and lack of women’s cooperation in religious affairs, security, and conflict resolution is the weak point of the community because it lacks women’s perspectives on all of the issues.

Issues, Challenges, and Achievements.

The issues and challenges that face women and shape women’s present and future include religion, education, economics, and politics. First, the complexity of interpretation of religious texts regarding women’s code of conduct and roles in society affects their participation in society. As Haji Abdul Muhammad Sis, educational officer, Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, and member of Cambodian Muslim Students Association, describes the awrah, the veiling (covering the whole body and head except their eyes) will be in conflict with women’s role in society and limits their relations with other people around the globe. The majority of moderate Muslims suggest that the awrah for women should cover the entire body from head to toes, leaving only the face and hands uncovered. They also believe that women should be allowed to go out and enjoy other opportunities like men. However, the minority, the Dakwah Tablīghīi, puts much focus on religious education, demands that women be veiled, and believes that they should not go anywhere without permission from their husbands. The reinforcement is not directed by the muftī, but by those who have come back from studying religious education abroad. As a consequence, followers, especially women and girls, are told to strengthen their faith and practice and to focus less on secular life. They also comment that higher religious education is optional for women but required for men, so women are limited to religious knowledge and are told not to challenge religious texts. To date a small number of Cham Muslim women have passed Qurʾānic recitation contests and have studied abroad (for example, in Malaysia and Brunei), but they are less well known and recognized.

Regarding secular education, some obstacles hinder women from obtaining education. In the past several years, wearing headscarves was a big issue in public school, as women were not allowed to wear the scarves in class. This issue was greatly resolved in 2008 when the government’s directive was circulated and implemented. What remain are arranged marriage and the lack of financial support from family members, which still happen in some villages. Although many parents encourage their daughters to go to school, some women are encouraged to marry when they are still very young. Once they are married, there is virtually no chance for them to go back to school. The lack of money to buy study materials and support living expenses hinder girls and boys from receiving education. Therefore, the lack of economic support and early marriage discourages women to further their study.

Decision making in the Cham Muslim family is still an issue. Usually the husband has the power to make every decision and gives permission to his wife for some things. Nevertheless, the moderates maintain that economic factors give a person the right to decide, which means that regardless of gender, whoever financially supports the family has the right to decide and that determines their status. Decision making outside the family sphere depends on one’s position and empowerment; however, because women have the minority voice and lower position, they have little power to decide.

As far as politics is concerned, women in Cambodia play little role in public due to their level of education; because of this, their representation in politics is relatively low, which is even more pronounced in Muslim communities. In the early twenty-first century, over three dozen Cham Muslim leaders in government offices are male, including H.E. Othsman Hassan, secretary of Labor and Vocational Training; H.E. Sos Mousine, secretary of the Ministry of Cults and Religions; H.E. Ahmad Yahya, secretary of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation; H.E. Zakaryya Adam, member of Parliament representing Kandal province; H.E. Sman Teath, member of the Senate; H.E. Ismail Osman, under-secretary of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation; H.E. Hap Omaly, under-secretary of Rural Development; H.E. Nos Sleh, under-secretary of Education, Youth, and Sports; H.E. Chhay Vanna, under-secretary of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation; H.E. Sabu Bacha, member of the Senate; H.E. Tres Sarum, member of the Parliament representing Kampong Cham province; H.E. Saleh Sen, member of the Parliament representing Kampot province; H.E. Man Sokry, under-secretary of Agriculture; H.E. San Sap Y, under-secretary of Health. Only two women hold the title Her Excellency in government offices: H.E Kop Mariyas, unde-secretary of Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and H.E. Math Mara, under-secretary of Ministry of Rural Development. About a dozen women have become department heads and deputy heads in the government offices.

Hence, women still have a limited role in politics, social, economic, and religious arenas. They still lack opportunities and empowerment in those arenas.

Women’s Organizations, Institutions, and Movements.

Cambodia has the smallest number of Muslim women’s organizations compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. The Cambodian Islamic Women’s Development Association (CIWDA) founded in 1997 by H.E. Othsman Hassan is the sole women’s organization. Kop Mariyas is the secretary-general of the association. It works to promote women’s well-being through vocational training and micro-scholarships to young students. The association provides English and computer skills to unemployed youth and provides sewing machines and training to unemployed women.

Another women’s association was created in 2010 by Ms. Hamzah Asiah, head of the department of Ministry of Cults and Religions, but the association is not in operation yet; it is still in the process of fundraising. The goal of the project is to promote widows’ and orphans’ well-being. The association will offer women sewing classes and material supports.

Following are a few of the Islamic organizations working on gender issues:

  • • Islamic Local Development Organization (ILDO)—works on human rights, women’s health issues, and education
  • • Cambodian Islamic Youth Association (CIYA)—works on education
  • • Cambodia Muslim Student Association (CAMSA)—provides dormitories for female Muslim students from provinces who are studying in the city.

The lack of Muslim women’s organizations and active programs for women comes from the lack of human resources, vision, and materials, which stalls development in the community. It is imperative that more Muslim women’s organization or institutions in Cambodia be created to work on addressing women’s concerns and serving their interests.

Despite these issues and challenges, Cham Muslim women continue to strive to be active leaders and activists in their communities, as well as to continue raising the children for the new generation. Their achievements can be seen through education, integration in the larger community, increase in the number of women enrolled in universities, parents’ and communities’ changing attitudes toward women and gender equality, and women’s confidence in working in their community and with other people. The trend of women asserting themselves in public is an improvement compared to the last half-century. For the community to continue to develop and prosper, it must provide opportunities for women, who contribute half of its human resources, and must commit to adopting progressive attitudes toward women and to approving a more moderate interpretation of Islam.


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