The Offensiveness of Women’s Knees

I’m standing in line to enter a Buddhist temple. The queue is advancing slowly, but finally it is my turn. I hand the ticket to the guard, but he doesn’t even glance at the ticket. He looks down and points at my bare knees.

“Too short!”

OK, I understand. It’s disrespectful to wear shorts in a sacred place. I turn to Eduardo:

“We have to zip on our pant legs!”

But the guard shakes his head.

“Not him, only you.”

Because even though our knees look exactly the same, mine are offensive and his are not.

Traveling the world, you come to face to face the absurdity of religious interpretation. Any holy scripture – be it the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, the Upanishads or Buddha’s sayings – can be read in so many different ways, it’s ultimately the individual’s personal preference that determines what goes, not anything that the prophets may or may not have said. That’s why some Buddhist monks will shake a woman’s hand, others won’t. Some Hindu temples allow shorts, others turn you away. Most Muslim mosques allow non-believers enter some specific sections, others none at all.

So why does it still upset me, after all these years, when my knees are singled out as obscene and a man’s knees are as pure as can be? Because after visiting more than sixty countries in six continents, my knees have only been discriminated against in three out of hundreds of temples, mosques and churches.

Let me emphasize: I have no problems with covering up in respect to someone’s religion. I do it gladly. You allow me to visit your most sacred shrine, and I will honor your rules. But when the rules are bent for men, and enforced for women, I refuse to enter.

My fight against this absurdity began when visiting the Great Mosque in Damascus, Syria. I was told to wear a cape even though I was already covering bot knees and shoulders – but my ankles and wrists were showing. Eduardo, however, was allowed to enter in shorts and t-shirt. Nice knees, by the way!

Since then, it’s happened in ONE Buddhist temple (Singapore) and ONE Hindu temple (Cambodia). Men can show their knees, women can’t. It makes me wonder what these people are thinking? Would God (or the Universe) have given women knees and shoulders – or hair, for that matter – if they are so repulsive? God messed up?

So I still get angry every time it happens. I tell the guards they are wrong. Perhaps I should just accept their rudeness and cover up, silently. But I can’t. I have to make some noise. Because if you never speak up about inequalities, things will never change.

And perhaps the gorgeous knees of millions of women may thank me one day.

Khmer Rouge – When The Devil Was In Charge

On April 17, 1975, the people of Phnom Penh celebrated in the streets as the Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into town. Finally, the rebels had ousted the corrupt, pro-American government and liberated Cambodia from the Viet Cong. At long last, there would be peace.

Little did they know that it was the start of a four year nightmare and suffering beyond their wildest fears. Only hours after Pol Pot and his comrades declared victory, teenage boys dressed in black and armed with rifles appeared everywhere. Anyone who didn’t fly a white flag outside their house was shot, and the ones who survived were chased out of town. It wasn’t safe to stay, they said. Another American bomb raid was due. They would be able to return in a few days. But it would take years until anyone could go back to Phnom Penh. All urban centers in Cambodia were turned into ghost towns, as the people of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea were forced into slave labor in remote villages.

Had they known, people would surely have reacted differently. But after being caught in the crossfire between Vietnam and the United States for the last ten years, a peaceful revolution seemed to answer everyone’s prayers. The Vietnamese had used their army to control their weaker neighbor. And Nixon’s army had peppered the border areas of neutral Cambodia with over 500,000 tonnes of bombs to catch any possible Vietnamese who might have slipped across the borders, four times as many bombs as they dropped on Japan during the second world war. Almost 10% of the Cambodian population had lost their lives in a war that was not their own.

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US Bombing of Cambodian areas 1965-1973

Khmer Rouge saw this moment as their chance to rise to power. With the aid of King Sihanouk, who had been exiled to China by the previous government, they presented themselves as the right choice for a free Kampuchea. They promised independence from Vietnam and thus an end to the bombings by the Americans.

 

But things didn’t turn out quite as planned. In an attempt to copy China’s agrarian revolution, millions of city-dwellers were relocated to forced-labor camps in the countryside. They were made to live in primitive huts and work the fields from dawn to dusk under the scorching sun without sufficient food or medicine. Schools were closed, hospitals and factories shut down. Banking, finance and currency were all abolished, and religions prohibited. Private properties were confiscated and all intellectuals, professionals, doctors, teachers and entrepreneurs were executed. Children were separated from their parents, and made to work as slaves in special children’s camps.

When the harvests didn’t increase according to plan, the food portions decreased to a few grains of rice in a watery soup and soon enough people started dying of starvation, exhaustion and diseases like malaria, dysentery and typhoid. Anyone who tried to supplement their diet with insects, rotten leaves or even rats was tortured or executed. Those who protested were shot.

It soon became evident that the revolution was a failure. Their idea of a completely self-sufficient Cambodia did not work. The Khmer Rouge responded by blaming it on others. Suddenly anyone could be accused for treason. Former friends of Pol Pot were no exception, nor were fellow revolutionaries. Anyone who was suspected of anti-Kampuchean activities was brought into prison and tortured until he confessed that he was working for the CIA or KGB, or – remarkably – both. Every “traitor” was forced to name up to fifty other co-conspirators. And so the list of innocent “criminals” grew by leaps and bounds until almost no one was safe. And everyone finally admitted to some crime, only to make the torture stop.

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An abandoned school in the deserted capital Phnom Penh, proved an ideal site for a prison for these “traitors”; the Tuol Sleng prison camp, also called S-21. Here, in a blocked off area of several square kilometers, the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed their “enemies” in secret. Former class-rooms were divided into tiny cells, so small that a grown man could not stretch out his body on the floor. The prisoners were chained to the floor, and forbidden to speak or make any noises. A plastic can was brought in as needed to be used as a toilet. Other classrooms were filled with prisoners, laying side by side, chained to the floor. Food was provided once a day at the most, and consisted of a couple of spoonfuls of rice and water. Bathing occurred once or twice a month, by the guards hosing water through the classroom windows.Every night, teenage guards who had been taught torture methods on animals, took someone away to be tortured or executed. Screams were heard across the playground, when the prisoners were hung upside down and whipped until they passed out. Other methods included pulling of nails, cutting off fingers and near-drowning. Babies were taken from their mothers and shot or bludgeoned to death.

All 20,000 prisoners were photographed on admission to S-21.Their photographs still hang in the Tuol Sleng museum as silent reminders of the children, men and women that were tortured to death in this camp. The fear in their eyes is haunting. They all knew that imprisonment equaled death. No one was ever released. To this day, Cambodians are still identifying relatives or friends from the photos, and will finally know for sure what happened to them after they disappeared.

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In 1979, when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh, only twelve of the tens of thousands of prisoners had survived. Some tortured bodies still lay rotting in their cells, but most had been buried a few miles away, at Choeung Ek the “enemy “dumping ground known as the Killing Fields.

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In their four years of power, the Khmer Rouge murdered around two million people, or a quarter of the country’s population; mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. Not one family remained intact. Still, the leaders of this organization who had committed war-crimes as heinous as those of Hitler or Stalin, remained on free foot for the next 28 years, supported economically and politically by the United States, China, Thailand, Britain, and the United Nations. Hiding in the Cambodian forest and continuing to terrorize the villages and towns of Cambodia, the UN named Khmer Rouge the “government of Cambodia in exile,”and allowed them to rule over the victims of their genocide for another fourteen years, until Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia.

Because of the support they received from their prosperous allies and international relief organizations, the Khmer Rouge flourished in hiding for decades until December 1998, when the organization was finally dissolved due to internal struggles. But before the Cambodians and International Leaders finally got their act together in terms of bringing these mass-murderers to trial, Pol Pot passed away, still as a free man, in April 1998. By 1999, the majority of the members had either surrendered or been captured.

 

How is it possible that a world that promised “never again” after WW II could turn a blind eye and even help these murderers get away with it? It all has to do with politics. The United States’ partnership with the Khmer Rouge grew out of their defeat against the Vietnamese. In this blind hatred, they formed an anti-Vietnamese and anti-Soviet partnership with China, and therefore supported the Khmer Rouge to help destabilize the pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia.

 

But really, there is no excuse for the world’s response and behavior in regards to Cambodia. Two million people died under horrific circumstances. The survivors lived in terror among landmines and Khmer Rouge attacks for another fifteen years. Not until 2010 was any of the leaders charged. The trials against the only two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still ongoing in 2013. To this date, only one of the Khmer Rouge leaders has been sentenced. No one else has paid for their crimes.

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The world has not learned anything from history. Why is it so difficult to put politics aside when we are dealing with murderers? Communism may be bad, but surely genocide is worse? When will the “free world” start acting morally?

 

Never again.

 

Please.

 

I’m Not Your Girlfriend, I’m A Hooker

A man walks into a bar. Instantly, he’s surrounded by twenty beautiful young girls, all vying for his attention, grabbing his hand, showing some leg.

“Hello, Mister. How are you, Mister?”

He looks around at the gorgeous nymphs. Which one will he choose? Tonight, he is more popular than James Bond. He is The Man. And he loves it.

He sits down next to the most beautiful lady.

“Buy me a drink, Mister, I’m thirsty.”

“Of course.”

“Buy my friend a drink, she is thirsty, too.”

The Man buys a round for all the girls, overjoyed that he can please them so easily. At a couple of dollars a piece, he can afford it. He has worked hard all his life, raised several children, gone through a couple of marriages. In his golden years, he is free to care only for himself. He has never been happier than right at this moment. His gaze wanders from one girl to the next. They are all so pretty. Their skin glows with youth. Their legs run long and lean under their mini-shorts. What a difference from his wrinkly old ex-wife. Maybe he should have left her sooner. She never looked at him as hungrily as these girls do. They want him. They really do.

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The Man is getting drunk. He stands up and dances to the beat of the music, delirious with his rediscovered sexiness. He sways his hips like Elvis Presley.

“Who is Elvis?” asks the girl.

“He was a sex-symbol. Like John Travolta.”

“Who is John Travolta?”

The multi-generation gap wails louder than the hip-hop beat. But The Man hears only his pounding heart. Tonight he feels like a teenager again.

“How old are you really?” he asks the girl of his choice.

“Eighteen,” lies the fifteen year old temptress. “How old are you?”

“Forty,”says the sixty-four year old, his cheeks turning red with the lie. He could pass for forty, he thinks. Or at least fifty. But right now he feels like twenty. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Love has no age.

“Wow, that’s old,” says the girl, distracted by the two attractive young men who have just walked into the bar. She’s drawn the bad card this evening. She’s stuck with the ugly old guy. Her friends swarm around the 30-year old Europeans. One of them might get lucky tonight and find a husband.

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The Man follows her gaze. Competition. Perhaps he is a little bit older than the other guys, but he’s at least as attractive. Right? He pulls his beauty close and tries to kiss her. She turns her face so that his lips land on her cheek.

“Naughty, naughty,” he laughs.

She laughs, too. The Man sighs with relief. She is still into him. She is just teasing. James Bond is back in action. He stands up and dances again, this time pulling her closer, grinding his pelvis against her. She is so gorgeous he could burst. The Viagra will definitely come in handy tonight.

He is in a hurry now. He pays the bill, including the bar tax for taking the girl out. Hand in hand they walk down the street towards his hotel. He feels so young again. His girlfriend is so pretty. Perhaps he should bring her back to England. His ex-wife would throw a fit. He’d like that. His daughters perhaps wouldn’t be so keen at first, if he brought home a girl half their age. But they’d come around. Of course they’d just want him to be happy.

Overwhelmed with desire, he throws his arms around her and tries to kiss her again. She pushes him away and lets go of his hand.

Deep inside he knows; she’s a hooker, not his girlfriend. But the alcohol has numbed his brain. In his fantasy, they’re so happily in love.

In Cambodia and Thailand, girls as young as 14 years old work in bars catered mostly to foreigners. Dressed in tiny shorts or mini-skirts, their job is two-fold; a) selling as many drinks as possible, and b) making good money by sleeping with the men, who will also pay a tax (brokerage fee) to the bar. Some of the girls have been sold by their parents, others are lured from villages with the promise of a respectable job in the city. Yet others come voluntarily, hoping to attract a wealthy man who will marry them and give them a better life abroad. With hundreds of girls working on the same street, there is no real stigma about the profession. Rather, it is seen as a good way to earn a living in your youth.

However, the foreigners who ignorantly feed this trade help support a life of misery. A local man will not marry a former prostitute, and if they – as the majority – don’t find a foreigner to wed, their life will be over once they reach the late twenties and their looks are gone. Or they might succumb to HIV: as many as one in four Cambodia hookers are infected with the virus.

But the saddest aspect of it all is the fate of the children who are brought into the world only to serve the perverse needs of some sick men. Not far from Phnom Penh, there’s a village inhabited by children who sell their bodies. On entering, you will see seemingly happy children skipping rope, playing with dolls, chasing each other. Then you learn that they are all for sale. Even the four-year olds. You just take your pick, pay a few dollars, and the child can be raped to your heart’s content.

Consensual sex between adults is one thing. But anyone buying the services of a prostitute should bear in mind that the eighteen year old willing to have sex with you for $5 might only be doing it because she has been raped since she was a baby and knows no other value of her body.

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Disney World Comes Alive in Angkor

India Jones was here, so was Lara Croft. The creators of the Tomb Raider and Temple Run video games came here for inspiration, as well as thousands of other video game producers, and probably the designers of most rides in Universal Studios and Disney World.

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It’s difficult to imagine, as you walk through one of the thousands of temples in Siem Reap, that you are not on a movie set. Everything seems so familiar, so perfectly designed – and so fake. But the Hindu and Buddhist Temples of Angkor have stood here for over a thousand years. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, when London and Paris were still little hamlets, the Khmer Empire was the largest, most powerful civilization in the world, and Angkor with its one million inhabitants was its capital.

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Booted by the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1351, the Angkor population dispersed and the holy city fell into ruins. Overgrown by weeds and plants, the stone temples lay in oblivion for six hundred years until French archaeologists started clearing away the forest and restoring many of the main temples.

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Today, the place is overrun with tourists. The screaming Chinese tourists, the Japanese with three cameras each, and hundreds of Europeans and Americans who have come to see one of the wonders of the world. It’s a steaming hot place packed with people shoving and pushing you around as you are trying to capture its serenity in a photo. It’s amazing and annoying at the same time. And after a day or two, your senses are full of impressions and you feel like you can’t stand seeing yet another temple. There are just so many of them.

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But after a deep breath and a nap during the hottest hours of the day, you’ll be ready to conquer yet another one of these miracles. And you’ll be reminded that this is not fake at all. Disney has nothing on Angkor Wat.

Truly.

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