Many Cambodians, particularly those living in the capital, can easily recount the story of Yeay Penh.
According to popular belief, Phnom Penh is named after an elderly woman known as “Grandmother Penh” said to have commissioned the construction of Wat Phnom hundreds of years ago after finding four images of Buddha on the banks of the Mekong River.
“Without her, we might not have the name of this city,” said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development.
Though Yeay Penh was an average person, “to be able to initiate the building of a temple, a person needs to have some kind of leadership that can mobilize the people,” Chea Vannath added.
On Saturday, Yeay Penh was one of nine prominent female figures from Cambodian history and legends honored during a ceremony at Wat Phnom to mark International Women’s Day, which falls today.
These famed women are believed to have lived between the first and the 16th centuries, said historian Ros Chantrabot, vice-president of Cambodia’s Royal Academy.
Some of them are mythical figures—deities and spirits known to protect humanity. Kong Hing, the Earth deity, is a figure in Buddhist lore who saved Buddha from enemies who were going to attack him by sending a flood to drown the men, Ros Chantrabot said.
Others like Queen Indradevi, the wife of Angkorean King Jayavarman VII, are said to have been the scholars of their day.
“Behind [Jayavarman VII] was a great woman…. She was a leader by herself,” Chea Vannath said of Indradevi.
Others were also wives of powerful men, Ros Chantrabot said. It is believed that Queen Liv Yi—also known as Princess Soma—ruled the country along with her husband Hun Tien in the late first century, while Khan Khieu was married to Ta Khlaing Moeung, a powerful military commander of the 16th century, Ros Chantrabot said.
“The purpose of the ceremony was to commemorate the holy spirits of those ladies and deities who struggled to protect people and land in the past,” said Thida Khus, director of NGO Silaka and secretary-general of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics—a coalition of seven NGOs. Thida Khus said that she was not entirely sure of the legends behind the nine women honored, or which of them were mythical characters and which were real.
But this mattered little, as they have inspired generations of Cam-bodian women, she said.
“We hope those spirits will always represent great women in Cambodians’ minds,” she added.
The ceremony—attended by politicians, NGO workers, Buddhist nuns and students—was symbolic more than anything else, Thida Khus said.
Ros Chantrabot, however, said he was surprised that the list of nine women included so many mythical figures, considering the large number of real heroines in Cambodia who could serve as role models.
This being an election year, the celebration was also intended to promote female political leaders.
Mu Sochua, SRP secretary-general and former minister of women’s affairs, said that the nine women—mythical and actual—were women who were respected for their leadership and interest in improving the community.
“Fifty-two percent of Cambodians are women,” Thida Khus said. “We want more women at the decision-making level in our society.”