Instead of wearing her hijab to high school in Phnom Penh, Sles Sadry would stuff the veil into her bag when she reached the school gates, only wrapping it back around her head and shoulders for the journey home.
Ms. Sadry, a Cham Muslim who is now 26 years old, says that following Islamic traditions in a society dominated by Buddhism is, at times, fraught with complications.
“When I was a child in Cambodia there was discrimination against women who wore the hijab,” she said. “When I was studying, the teachers forbade wearing the hijab, but now it is more accepted.”
A civil engineer who studied in Indonesia from 2008 to 2013, Ms. Sadry said her experiences in Indonesia and Malaysia, both majority-Muslim countries, have shaped her view of Islam’s place in contemporary Cambodia.
“In Indonesia I could eat anywhere. Restaurants would advertise that they offer halal food, but in Cambodia most of the restaurants do not have halal,” she said.
“I [also] want more supermarkets and malls here to have a place for praying because when we are visiting these places and it’s time for us to pray they have no place. In foreign countries they all have it.” The Chams suffered greatly under the Khmer Rouge—an estimated 70,000 members of the minority died during the regime—and had only limited religious freedom during the 1980s.
But the ruling CPP party has over the past two decades promoted religious freedom, permitting young Muslim women to wear their religious dress at school, setting up Islamic prayer rooms at Phnom Penh airport and granting unrestricted participation in political life.
The party enjoys widespread support among Cambodia’s Islamic community, with many Chams saying the CPP’s tolerant stance has brought about a shift in attitudes.
However, Eng Kok-Thay, deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), said even centuries after their arrival in the country, many Cham Muslims still feel like outsiders.
“It influences their political position. They try their best to live in Cambodia and not create any strong opposition against the government,” he said. “Historically they have supported the government in power.”
The strong ties between the Cham community and the government were illustrated last week when Prime Minister Hun Sen joined thousands of Muslims for an iftar, or evening feast, to celebrate Ramadan.
For the estimated 400,000 Cham Muslims in Cambodia, Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which ends on Sunday, requires them to refrain from eating between sunrise and sundown.
Set Muhammadsis, from the Islamic Local Development Council, said that observing one of the “five pillars” of Islam was not always a straightforward task in a Buddhist country, especially for young people who must continue to attend school.
In many Middle Eastern countries, schools and offices operate at reduced hours during Ramadan. But Muslims in Cambodia must go about their business as usual.
“Some [students], it affects,” Mr. Muhammadsis said. “At night they find it very hard to read books because they are tired from the fasting and because they have to get up really early [at 3 a.m.] to break their fast.”
But Mr. Muhammadsis added that he felt the rigors of Ramadan—an obligation for all Muslims with the exception of the sick, elderly and pregnant—made committed young Muslims more resilient.
Among that younger generation of dedicated Muslims is Ly Sary, 24, a philosophy graduate who is currently living in a mosque in Phnom Penh’s Toul Tompoung neighborhood.
“Fasting is not only about food. It’s also about our minds, bodies, and words,” he said. “All deeds that are immoral, lies, and bad things; if we do them, we ruin our fast.”
Mr. Sary, whose Islamic name is Assary Bin Abdullah, said he appreciates living in a country where he enjoys full political freedoms and counts many Buddhists and Christians among his friends.
However, Mr. Sary said it was disappointing that some Khmer people still held stereotypes of Cham Muslims, such as the idea that they practice black magic.
“Some Khmer people still have very little understanding about Islam,” he said. “When speakers are played loudly to call Muslim people to pray, it can disturb Khmer people. Some of them say it sounds like the howling of a dog.”
“I do not get angry with them because those who do not know have no fault, just like the Buddha said.”
Mr. Kok-Thay at DC-CAM, who is not a Cham but has researched the community for a number of years, said there was also an element of commonality between the Khmers and Chams.
“For the Khmer Cambodians there is the issue of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia and the loss of land to Vietnam and for the Chams the loss of land to Vietnam…both have shared the idea of being victim to Vietnam’s encroachment and expansion,” he said.
Mr. Kok-Thay said although Cham Muslims faced some discrimination in Cambodia, it was limited compared to the antipathy sometimes shown toward the ethnic Vietnamese population in the country.
“There are some feelings among Khmers that they [Chams] have an inferior religion and way of life, but this kind of thinking doesn’t go into public policy or politics,” he said. “It’s just personal feelings.”
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