Women faced unique horrors—including rape and forced marriage to soldiers—under the Khmer Rouge, who viewed them as weak and disposable. Even prior to the takeover, however, many Cambodian women were subjected to sexist societal expectations and unfair treatment. Writing from the perspective of a young girl, Loung’s story is particularly attuned to the ways in which women suffer before, during, and after times of war. Whatever group controls Cambodia—the Lon Nol government, the Khmer Rouge, or the Vietnamese—women are denied independence, dignity, and respect, their lives routinely considered less valuable than those of men. Loung’s story ultimately shows that even small moments of misogyny are part of a larger continuum of sexist violence.
Societal expectations of women are established early in the novel when Ma scolds the rambunctious, curious Loung for not being sufficiently ladylike. “It must be hard for her to have a daughter who does not act like a girl,” Loung reflects. Ma again echoes demands of female propriety by wishing to mold Loung’s argumentative fourteen-year-old sister Keav into a “great lady.” Loung also recognizes the power of female beauty in Phnom Penh. She points out that pretty girls are more successful street vendors, noting how beauty “turns otherwise smart men into gawking boys.”
By highlighting societal expectations of women before the Khmer Rouge takeover, Ung is able to later draw connections between these expectations and the violence committed against them under the new regime. Specifically, Ung shows that the ideology that says women should be pure, delicate, and submissive is the same ideology that undergirds the denial of women’s dignity and bodily autonomy.
Women are targets for violence throughout the story, regardless of who is in power. In Phnom Penh, Pa notes that civil unrest has resulted in daughters of government workers being harassed in the streets and even kidnapped. Because of this, Pa—a military police captain—has two colleagues follow Keav around for protection. Women’s safety grows yet more precarious under the Khmer Rouge. Though the Angkar touts ideals of equality, in practice it deems women “weak and dispensable.” Khmer Rouge soldiers kidnap and rape girls with impunity, asserting that it is women’s duty to bear sons for the Angkar. Davi, the pretty daughter of Loung’s neighbors in the village of Ro Leap, is abducted and raped by soldiers one night, and returns traumatized and covered in bruises. Some of the girls whom soldiers kidnap never return at all. Loung understands that “if they do not fulfill their duty”—that is, if they do not submit to their captors—“they are worthless and dispensable.” Laine, a teen from a nearby village, is forced by her parents to marry Loung’s older brother Khouy in an effort to protect her from a similar fate.
The danger does not end when Loung escapes the Khmer Rouge, either. Later in the book, after the Vietnamese have invaded Cambodia and toppled the Angkar, three young women stay with Khouy and Loung’s other brother Meng in the displaced peoples camp because they know they are safer with men than they would be on their own. Their fears are not unfounded. In the same camp, Loung is attacked by Paof, the teenage son of her first foster family, and also nearly raped by a Vietnamese soldier in the woods—a soldier, she notes, who is meant to be protecting people like her from the Khmer Rouge. These incidents emphasize the fact that gendered violence does not start and end with the Khmer Rouge. Misogyny is not limited to any single group, but is reflective of broader, more deeply embedded attitudes about women.
Loung’s story also highlights how women—rather than their abusers—are generally blamed for the violence that befalls against them. Women are expected to behave in ways that will reduce their chances of being targeted by men, regardless of the fact that they are rarely in control of the situation and that none of these self-preservation behaviors seem to make much of a difference. A woman’s beauty, for example—in many ways, her only currency in Phnom Penh—is regarded as an invitation to harass her. With this in mind, when the boat smuggling Loung and other refugees to Thailand comes across a pirate ship, the women onboard smear their bodies with charcoal and scoop vomit into their hair—all in an effort to make themselves less likely to be raped by the pirates. Davi’s parents similarly work to hide their daughter’s beauty whenever she is out in public, and she is “rarely seen without a scarf covering her head or mud on her face,” but she is taken by soldiers regardless.
If women are perceived as not taking sufficient steps to ward off attacks, they are held at fault for the sexual violence committed against them. When Loung attempts to fights off Paof’s advances, for example, he tells her, “It’s your fault anyway, always tagging along and going places with me.” Loung thinks that “Paof is right: I cannot fight him. I cannot tell anyone … There is nothing I can do but keep away from him.” Similarly, Loung is deeply embarrassed and ashamed after being nearly raped by the Vietnamese soldier, and feels there is no one to whom she can report his actions.
Loung does not question the unfairness of women’s treatment until the end of the story. When a Vietnamese girl is nearly raped in the Thai refugee camp, Loung overhears women “prattle about how the girl brought it upon herself … always laughing loudly, talking, and flirting with men”—in short, for exhibiting unladylike behavior. Speaking ill of the Vietnamese girl and others like her, the women continue: “They wear sexy clothes with long slits up their skirts and swimming suits. They bring bad attention to themselves.” Though Loung, too, is initially scandalized by Vietnamese girls’ comparative lack of modesty—staring in shock at one such girl deigning to wear in a bathing suit in public—she has grown to recognize the unfair double standard with which women must cope. Having witnessed so much mistreatment at the hands of men throughout her ordeal, her “face burns with rage” as she asks, “Are they right? Those people who are always so quick to blame the girls.”
Loung’s multiple encounters with misogyny suggests that it will not end with any single shift in regime, but rather must be stamped out on an ideological level. Only by recognizing—and, as Loung ultimately does, questioning—society’s treatment of women can this happen.
Women’s Treatment in Times of War ThemeTracker
Women’s Treatment in Times of War Quotes in First They Killed My Father
"Don't you ever sit still? You are five years old. You are the most
troublesome child. Why can't you be like your sisters? How will you ever grow up to be a proper young lady?" Ma sighs. Of course I have heard all this before.
It must be hard for her to have a daughter who does not act like a girl, to be so beautiful and have a daughter like me.
Strolling slowly along the sidewalk, I watch men crowd around the stands with the pretty young girls at them. I realize that a woman's physical beauty is important, that it never hurts business to have attractive girls selling your products. A beautiful young woman turns otherwise smart men into gawking boys.
He breathes heavily, his wet lips on my cheek. In a surge of anger, I slap him across the face and push him away.
"Leave me alone! Get away from me!" I scream into his face.
"What's the problem, am I not nice to you? You like me, I know you do." He smirks and approaches me again. I want to rip his lips off his face. "Get away or I'll tell on you!"
"All right," he says, and his eyes glare at me. "Who will believe you? It’s your fault anyway, always tagging along and going places with me." Spitting at his feet, I turn and run away. Paof is right: I cannot fight him. I cannot tell anyone—not even Kim and Chou.
Waiting in lines for their ration of food, the women prattle about how the girl brought it upon herself. "After all," they say, "she is Vietnamese. These Vietnamese girls are always laughing loudly, talking, and flirting with men. They wear sexy clothes with long slits up their skirts and swimming suits. They bring bad attention to themselves." My face burns with rage; I run away from the gossips. Are they right? Those people who are always so quick to blame the girls.