So there’s been a lot of gender debates lately since the domestic violence incident in Fresno. I can’t speak much about that tragedy, given that I don’t know much about it except through media, but the issue of culture and sexism has been talked a lot on Facebook. It’s very important that we all understand exactly where and how Hmong culture is sexist in order to all agree on what the problems are and how they can be fixed to prevent tragedies like this one. It’s also very important that Hmong men understand just where women are coming from as they are speaking about sexism.
To begin, there’s a big difference between individual sexism and institutional sexism. Many Hmong men are not sexist or misogynistic, similarly to the fact that many white people are not racist. However, we have to recognize that our cultural institutions like the clan system are sexist and perpetuate sexism, just like how many American institutions are racist and perpetuate racism. To make things easier, I’ll be comparing the two to clarify how Hmong culture is sexist.
1. Hmong cultural values give a lower cultural status to women
So we all know that in America, the only way to have full rights is to be a citizen. Citizens can’t be deported, can’t have their rights taken from them, etc. Once you’re a citizen, you are guaranteed benefits like welfare, a fair trial, or can run for office. However, we have other residency categories in America like residents with green cards, and undocumented people who don’t have papers at all and they don’t have all those rights and benefits. So using this as a lens, what status do women in our culture have?
All men, by the act of being born, have “citizenship” in the family clan and are seen as legitimate members of their clan, can participate in all parts of the clan, and are protected as one of the family’s own. Women on the other hand, do not have this same status, as it is believed that they will eventually go on to become part of another clan once they’re married. It is most obviously represented in the fact that we call our daughters “qhua,” or guests in our family. This Hmong belief and cultural status influences every aspect of Hmong women’s’ experiences. In order for me to illustrate it, I will have to bring up how Hmong men are oppressed.
It is very difficult for men to understand what women go through unless we try to relate using the idea that we are constantly discriminated against because we are Asians in the United States. Ever been pulled over for just being Asian? Did your teacher or counselor not pay much attention to you because you were Asian? Have you been called names and demeaned based on your race? Have you been told you can’t do something because you’re too short or won’t fit in? These are all things Hmong women had to go through, but in their very own families and homes. It’s important that Hmong men sit back to think about just what it is that they do and how they think, that is just as hateful and discriminatory as racists.
2. Due to their cultural status, women are not given the same rights as men
If you work and contribute to a community, you would expect it to offer things like police and laws to protect you and your well-being. In the case of our culture, you would expect clans to look after their family members and keep them from harm or suffering. Of course Hmong men who are “citizens” of their clan can expect their relatives would fight for them if they were wronged in any way. Unfortunately, women aren’t given these same rights and protections.
Because our culture views women as “guests” of our family it allows women to be mistreated in many different ways. Kidnapping marriages is just one example. If a son was kidnapped by another family to marry their daughter and join their family, his clan would not tolerate it. They would be angry that the other clan took “one of their own.” This isn’t the case for daughters. Because daughters are seen as not belonging to a clan, it is much more acceptable in our culture to allow the act of kidnapping a young girl to take place.
In fact, it is so acceptable that we have a formal process for this in our culture in the marriage system. By formalizing the act of kidnapping as a “marital” process, our culture normalizes kidnapping marriages. It’s a big reason why we continue to see this kidnapping marriages to this very day in the United States. It is so normal in our culture, that we have to consistently rely on outside authorities like police to intervene because we can’t fight it in our own culture. Men need to recognize that the Hmong culture facilitates and perpetuates the mistreatment of women. It doesn’t mean that all Hmong families or men do this, but it does mean that when a young girl is kidnapped, our culture works in favor of the male kidnapper instead of the female victim, and therefore it is sexist.
3. Due to their cultural status, women have little power in marriages
So since a woman isn’t a “citizen” of her own family, where does she belong? Of course we would say, she is a “citizen” of her husband’s family. But that comes with a problematic catch. Her status is dependent on him not divorcing her. This gives a Hmong husband an incredible amount of control over his wife. He can marry another wife. He can cheat. He can mistreat her. He can leave her for years at a time like my father does to my mother.
Since my dad is the oldest man in his clan, no one can hold him accountable, not even my mother’s parents. My father can do whatever he likes without any regard for my mother because even if they got a divorce, my mother would get the short end of the stick. She would be without a clan and have to go back to her parents with the stigma of being a divorcee. Actually, my father prefers not to divorce her so he won’t have to pay money to my grandparents. He would rather just go off and abandon her without any concern of how it affects her. She can’t do anything about it, and she can’t even move on to find a new relationship because she’s tangled with this one.
Again, not all men would do such a thing. But the culture facilitates and perpetuates this form of abuse. The culture creates a power dynamic that allows husbands to constantly get their way and force wives to accept their decisions. It’s easy to blame and label these guys bad men, but we have to look deeper at what enables them to be bad men, and ultimately it is the Hmong culture.
4. Due to their cultural status, women can never take on any formal leadership or roles in a clan
Ask yourself, can a woman ever be my clan’s leader? Of course not. Why not? Because our culture never sees her as a full member of the clan. Even if she is 65, her husband can pass away and she can be remarried to someone else, becoming part of their clan. Since this is the case, our culture has forever excluded women from ever being able to lead our community. It’s quite similar to the fact that Americans used to have laws that prevent non-landowners from ever voting or running for office. It didn’t say black people can’t participate in making laws and picking leaders, but since only white people could own land at that time, it meant only white people could vote and run for office. But a lack of female leadership leads to a whole bunch of other problems.
5. Due to not being able to take on leadership roles, women cannot culturally protect each other
With women never being able to take on any formal cultural roles of leadership, all decisions are made by men, even those that involve women like domestic violence and kidnapping marriages. In this way, the structure of Hmong culture is unable to be fair to women, regardless of how good the Hmong leaders are. In the justice system in America, we have judges to decide what to do when problems occur. They are to decide what is fair or not. But even with the way American courts are set up, it is a known fact that white judges give lighter sentences to white criminals than black criminals for committing the same crime, because they identify more with the white criminals.
We have to understand that in our culture, all the judges are clan leaders. If a couple is experiencing a domestic violence situation, they go talk to their clan leaders. But all the clan leaders are male. On top of that, all the clan leaders are the husband’s relatives and helped raised him. Would they have more sympathy for the husband or wife? Of course they would have more sympathy for the husband. Even if all the clan leaders are good, kind, thoughtful, benevolent clan leaders, they will be less able to understand where women are coming from and will be more sympathetic to men.
6. Due to not being able to take on a leadership role, women can never help the culture grow to become less sexist
The only people in the Hmong community who can change our culture to becoming a better place for women, are women. Unfortunately our culture keeps them from being able to lead the community because they’re born female. It is like saying that the President of the United States must be a white man. This is textbook sexism, because a formal, legitimate, recognized leadership position is essential when trying to make things better for those who are discriminated against or oppressed.
Women have a major role to play in shaping what is fair, just, and healthy for women and our larger community as well. Unfortunately there is no clear role for women within the culture. Passionate Hmong women have had to go outside the culture to create non-profits and support groups to give help to Hmong women. But it is important that our culture create positions and structures within our culture to allow women to influence how clans handle and take on gender sensitive issues, including who can become a clan leader. Because ultimately…
7. Sexism in Hmong culture is unfair and unjust, which only creates even more problems
Well for all the points I’ve made, this is as simple a summary as it gets. But our unfair and unjust culture doesn’t just create the problems I’ve mentioned above, it creates many, many more. When one group of people is given a higher status than another, tension and problems constantly grow. Children grow to hate their fathers who mistreat their mothers. Parents grow to mistreat their daughters and nyabs. Young women don’t want to date in the community. Young men don’t know how to relate their girlfriends and vice versa. Young people resent their elders and customs. All these issues are only symptoms of a culture that is unhealthy. For that reason, it is important that Hmong men work with Hmong women to figure out how to reform the culture. Not just for what’s right and wrong, but for the safety and health of our own families.
Actually, after writing this article, I noticed that the tragedy in Fresno included every issue I mentioned. They experienced every hardship, and fell through every crack. It’s hard to say what it was created such a tragedy, but we need to recognize how our culture didn’t help in any way to make it easier on both of them. I hope we can honor their memory by taking the time to sit, talk respectfully, and reflect on just what it is in our own lives that we do to perpetuate sexism in our own families and relationships.