In light of a Sacramento Bee article that came out on the community movement against domestic violence in our community, I realize there needs to be a deeper discussion about what is really going on in our community, to break down all the misunderstanding that has been happening around domestic violence. As a Hmong man who has worked in the community for many years now and has wrestled with this issue in my own life and on a community level, I feel it is important for me to participate in this discussion and give some input into this issue that so that men actually meaningfully engage in this conversation.
First off, it’s fundamental that everyone understand that domestic violence is only a symptom of a deeper problem in our community. If the only outcome to this conversation of domestic violence is “Don’t break the law and respect women,” there really will be no meaningful change in our community. I myself have felt the urge to hurt a woman I loved, and was able to shut myself down before I acted inappropriately. But that didn’t solve anything, it just kept our problems from getting worse. What is more important for me to ask is “How did our relationship get so unhealthy that we even got to that point I wanted to hurt her?”
At the root of this problem is exactly that deeper issue: that it is difficult for Hmong men and women to have healthy relationships, especially with all the changes we experience in this country and all the expectations we’re forced to uphold. In this article, I’ll be exploring what I’ve experienced and understood of what it takes to make healthier gender relationships both on a personal and cultural level.
1. We need to let go of gender roles and stereotypes so we can actually communicate
The basis of any good relationship is communication. Communication is what allows people to explore a problem and get on the same page so they can solve it together. But unfortunately gender roles create all sorts of issues when we’re trying to fix problems in families. In the Hmong community, men are supposed to work, provide, be the head of household, etc. Women are supposed to raise children, take care of the home, etc. But life is different for every couple, and we have to be flexible enough in our community to be open about what works best for each couple instead of relying on these stereotypes.
For example, if a married couple is having problems because the wife works and the husband stays at home, many parents wouldn’t know how to support that couple in dealing with their problems. In fact, it’s possible the advice they give would hurt the couple more, especially if they simply scold the husband for not having a job, and scold the wife for not staying at home. The couple needs their parents and families to help them work out their situation through open communication. If the family only imposes gender expectations and roles it will only increase the stress and difficulty of their situation.
On top of this, if we were to create a new gender role, say that good men don’t abuse women, it would only be just as superficial and ineffective. Men and women still wouldn’t be able to communicate and be flexible in how they work together. Instead there would just be new roles and expectations for men to uphold that will mask the deeper issues and problems that men experience in relationships.
In my life, I openly communicate with my sisters. The reason why is that I have refused the gender role to “keep them in line.” If I lived up to that expectation, they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to me about their lives and sharing with me what they’re going through. They would hide all the problems in their life from me in fear that I will scold, punish, or control them in some way to make them “ideal.” Because I have rejected this gender role and treat them as a sibling I deeply care about, they are able to share with me where they are at in life and I can actually help them with the problems they experiencing, and vice versa.
But this applies on all ends of the spectrum. Men and women need to reject their gender roles and instead rely on their honesty and openness to be able to reinvent their relationship as needed to adapt to the changes in their lives. Families need to let go of their expectations of couples and be open to listening about what the dynamics in the relationship are first to actually give good advice. The deeper value shouldn’t be how to be an ideal Hmong family, it should be how to be an honest one where everyone can participate and communicate freely to work together.
2. We need more women representation in the structures of our community
An ongoing problem I see with all community efforts I’ve been a part of is that all the positions of power and influence are held by men. This is an enormous problem particularly in regards to how we deal with situations like domestic violence. If a couple has domestic violence issues, they normally turn to their families for support. But who sits on the clan leadership of these families? Men. So women experiencing domestic violence are forced to rely solely on other men to help them address the problems in their relationship. Unfortunately these men will more likely identify with and side with the husband. Beyond this, even older women will often side with men as well, further ignoring the needs of domestic violence victims.
Leadership from strong, independent female perspectives are essential to creating a less male-centric approach in our community and give balance to the variety of experiences struggling couples face. Without more strong women in clan leadership, in boards of organizations, and other positions of power and influence, we’re stuck with a culture and community that will continuously neglect and ignore women and their needs. Because of these problems, we see that women are less likely to want to marry in the community, to rely on the community, and to participate overall. To have a more meaningful culture that can grow and change with the needs of the whole Hmong community in America, we need to value women’s voices and perspectives at the same level as men and respect their independent perspectives.
3. Men need to be in relationship with women, meaning that they really listen and they really talk, especially now
Although this is a national conversation on domestic violence, it is still largely outside the traditional structures of our families and communities, and it is solely led by women. This poses a number of questions: Where are the men who want to openly participate in solving domestic violence? How do men feel about domestic violence? How do men want to contribute to making things get better? All these questions revolve around the fact that men must be willing to be in relationship to women, even when exploring difficult issues like domestic violence where we might feel insecure, vulnerable, or at fault. It’s important that we don’t take this effort as an attack on our masculinity or blame a few bad apples, but rather take it as an opportunity to finally listen to women as they communicate to us about what they know to be the problems in our community. On top of that, we shouldn’t just stick to the sensationalization of domestic violence but really dig down and see where we as individuals fit into this picture and how we contribute to the root of this problem.
We have a rare opportunity as a community at the moment, where women are really leading the charge in trying to address the problems in our families. I hope Hmong men everywhere take this opportunity to not simply side with women against this “issue,” but take the time to reflect on the words and sentiments that women are communicating to us. I myself am reflecting on my own anger and frustrations in relationships, and trying to figure out how I can help be more than just an “ally” but actually be a partner in this effort to redefine what is needed to make our families and community work.
If you’d like to read the Sacramento Bee article, you can find it here: http://www.sacbee.com/