Feminist festivals: Women, art and empowerment in Phnom Penh

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Phnom Penh is set to host its first feminist arts festival over the course of this weekend. Photo supplied

Organised by a group of local and expat women, this weekend Cambodia will host its first feminist arts festival, as the three day Phnom Fem Fest (PFF) begins on Friday celebrating and empowering women, and creating positive discourse on women’s rights and gender equality in the Kingdom.

The Vagina Monologues – exploring the mystery, humour, pain, power, wisdom, outrage and excitement in women’s experiences – will be the centre piece of this year’s inaugural PFF.

The play, considered a pioneering piece of feminist arts and culture, has been translated into 46 languages and now, for the first time, the two monologues will be presented in Khmer.

All profits from the Vagina Monologues – performed by community amateur dramatics theatre group the Phnom Penh Players – will go directly to non-profit local human rights NGO Early Years Behind Bars, an organisation supporting women, mothers and children in Cambodian prisons.

“We have translated two of the monologues into Khmer for the first time and it will be performed by local actors,” says Shauna O Mahony, one of PFF’s organisers, who conceived the idea for the festival in November last year.

“We will showcases feminist storytelling, spoken word, workshops, live painting, music, dance, art exhibition and theatre.”

In order to make the festival accessible to all, with a particular focus on encouraging participation among Cambodians, O Mahony said it was vital that the festival was free. Consequently, the only part of the three day event that charges admission are the Vagina Monologues performances.

The Phnom Penh Players will charge $10 per ticket, but with a discounted price for Cambodian attendees.

“We are confident the festival will attract 1000 guests and we estimate that our marketing strategy will grant us exposure to roughly 10,000 people in the Kingdom,” said O Mahony.

As part of the global V-Day spotlight campaign – a movement marking Valentine’s Day started by the author and playwright behind the Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler, calling for an end to violence against women and girls – Cambodian women will be encouraged to give personal monologues about their experiences of gender based violence and incarceration at the end of each production at PFF.

“Because of the festival’s proximity to Valentine’s Day we will be launching an awareness campaign promoting women’s rights and sexual consent by distributing 1000 heart shaped balloons with the PFF logo and festival details around the city. This will also become part of a larger social media campaign,” O Mahony said.

Every year, the V-Day Spotlight campaign brings attention to a particular group of women experiencing elevated levels of violence and socio-political marginalisation globally. These Spotlights aim to raise awareness for issues the women face and aid community groups working to address them.

V-Day’s 2018-2019 Spotlight, created in collaboration with formerly incarcerated women and activists, will focus on Women in Prisons, Jails and Detention.

The fourth-wave feminist movement has dominated Western headlines throughout 2018, sparked by the seminal #metoo movement that started as a backlash against the everyday experiences of sexual harassment experienced by women around the globe.

In the past decade Cambodia has seen an increase of feminist voices and a nascent movement emerge through prominent figures trailblazing the way for contemporary Khmer women.

These include Catherine Harry, who has championed a Cambodian feminist movement calling for awareness of sexual consent, and Thavry Thon, the author of book A Proper Woman addressing women’s oppression.

The work of these local women, and many more, has had a positive impact in Cambodia, normalising the discussion of women’s issues which have previously been a taboo subject.

However, O Mahony says there is still a major lack of awareness of gender rights among many Cambodians, which led PFF to host the festival.

“We hope to create a platform for Cambodian women to take to the stage, sharing their stories and experiences, expressing themselves through music, art and dance and establishing a safe and positive environment for feminist discourse,” she said.

Vagina Monologues will be performed at 7pm on Friday, 5pm on Saturday and 7pm on Sunday at Chinese House on Preah Sisowath Quay Street in Phnom Penh. Tickets are still available for Friday and Sunday and can be purchased for $10 (discounts for Cambodian citizens) at Lot 369 Cafe & Bar and Lot 369 Cafe & Bar.

For more information, you can visit the festival’s Facebook page (@PhnomFemFest).