The biggest challenges for Hmong domestic violence victims

18 Oct

Those who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence (DV) believe that a victim can just leave her abuser whenever she wants to.  “If it’s that bad, why don’t you just leave?  It must not be that bad, because you keep going back to him.  You have been married to him for 20 years; why’d you stay for that long?”

There are numerous reasons as to why a woman stays with her abuser.  Fear, no money, no support system, the children, immigration issues, addiction, disability, having no self-esteem/self-confidence, and the list goes on and on.  Hmong victims of DV experience these challenges in addition to others specific to the Hmong society.

The biggest challenge any Hmong woman face associated with DV in America is their tie to their culture and community.

Just imagine growing up in a culture where the males have the authority and you’re taught from the day you were born to respect your family over your own needs.  Before a Hmong woman can reach outside her community for help, she would have to jump over this hurdle.  And doing this takes a lot of strength and courage.

I don’t conform to Hmong traditions that oppress women.  And because of this, sometimes, when the subject arises, people question my loyalty to my culture.  “Why do you hate your people so much?  Why do hate your own culture?  Why are you not a good daughter/daughter-in-law?”  It’s not because I hate my culture or my people; I love my culture—our history, the food, our traditional clothing, our language, music, etc—I just don’t appreciate traditions that oppress my rights as a human being simply because I am a woman.

Sometimes not conforming to culture may lead the community to look down on you, say that you have abandoned your culture, and ostracize you.  Keep in mind that the Hmong value reputation and so being excluded from the community is not something a woman may want.  Many Hmong women only seek help within their Hmong community because of this.  One form of help—which, in my opinion is not very helpful to victims of DV—is the clan system.  Your clan (or family) takes care of your problems.

As stated in an earlier blog, there are 18 official Hmong last names.  These make up 18 official clans.  (I am from the Yang clan; My spouse is from the Xiong clan, which makes me a part of the Xiong clan as well).  The elders (fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers, great-uncles) in the clan are the leaders.  When you have problems, you seek out your clan leaders for help.

When a couple is having marital problems, they discuss their problems with their clan leaders.  DV has always been a taboo topic.  You simply just sweep it under the carpet, and this is what the clans have been doing for a very long time.  If a woman requests a mediation with the clan leaders because her husband is abusing her, they will—almost always—tell her to go back home, be patient, and deal with it  (Note: Telling a DV victim to go back to her abuser with no safety plan is very careless and dangerous).

Divorce is highly discouraged, so to many Hmong women, divorce is not the answer.  And if she does have a divorce, she ends up having a bad reputation.  It doesn’t matter what the reasons are for her divorce.  A Hmong woman could’ve divorced her husband because he was cheating or he was abusive, but to others, she has failed as a wife.  And if she were the one to want the divorce and get divorced, many people will change the story to her husband divorced her because of her inability to provide for him.  (Hmoob yuav thuam thiab hais tias nws yog ib tug poj niam tsis zoo es nws thiaj li nrauj nws tus txiv).

Sometimes, because the clan leaders do not grant a divorce, the wife may leave her husband (ua nkauj fa).  Leaving your husband without a divorce is the worst thing a Hmong woman can do to ruin her reputation and that of her family’s.  She is leaving her husband without the consent of her clan, so she is abandoning her duties as a wife and as a daughter.  Leaving your husband is a bigger stigma than divorce and has a history of adulterous wives who leave their husbands for their lovers.  Because of this connotation, even if a Hmong woman’s intentions are genuine, others may not believe so.

Feeling obligated to follow traditions, believing that divorce is not the answer, and not having the support system that a victim may need to gather enough courage to seek help (because family continuously tell her to go back to her abuser) are the biggest barriers a Hmong woman may have.  Other barriers may be not speaking English, being misinformed or not informed of resources available, and—like all DV victims—the feeling of helplessness.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

7 Responses to “The biggest challenges for Hmong domestic violence victims”

  1. Jean October 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    It appears the Hmong clan system that is so strongly patriarchical, is evidence, that the Hmong are recent immigrants in North America in the past few decades, which might explain why some of these attitudes may be tightly held in North America among some (insecure) Hmong. Immigration only makes people more insecure, stressed…and hence, more prone to DV.

    The patriarchical clan system as you described it among the Hmong in some North American communities, died out a long time ago in general in the Chinese community…because:

    a) lst of all they (those of Chinese descent) come to North America, from so many areas of the world now. Not just China, but Taiwan, Great Britain, Australia, Caribbean, etc. Where they come from, they carry with them cultural influences of those countries.

    b) The Chinese world-wide for the latter part of the 19th century and into early 20th century, also went to countries where jobs and money were. If the local immigration laws were too strict, the men spent a few years working and living and then returnd to China. Therefore the women had to figure some stuff out themselves along with other males who they had to defer to (if they were even around) i home country.

    c) and So on.

    So the clan system from China to Canada (and U.S.) was more an informal social support system for isolated Chinese immigrants. They were/are meeting places for them, etc. …. Yes some of these clan associations are formed around people sharing same common last name(s). My great-uncle helped run one of them. More of a social club. Young people see them as vaguely anarchronistic and quite harmless. And for sure, absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s marital problems.

    DV does exist in the Chinese community, but no different than ie. White Anglo Saxon Protestant/Catholic community at large in North America.

    Divorce is more common now among the Chinese here in North America (and I think in China.After all with almost 1 billion people there, there’s probably enough divorces!! ).

    1 cousin of mine is divorced with 4 children. She is my age.

    Another is her brother, divorced with 2 children.

    I don’t know what to say..except maybe it is a whole lot better for a Hmong-American to be living in a different area in the U.S. that is not so deeply tied to Hmong for a few years. It’s great comfort for “familiarity”, but sounds like a headache to me.

    • MaiBao October 20, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

      The problem with many Hmong is that they are comfortable the way they are. They don’t want change and any hint of change is threatening to them. I do hope that the Hmong in the US will change for the better decades from now.

  2. HmonGuru October 20, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    I’ve been following your posts about domestic abuse and cultural barriers that prevent victims (mostly women) from seeking help and support, and I mostly agree with you. Traditional Hmong society is built around men, with little regard for women. While I am keen to preserve Hmong tradition and culture in the sense of language, clothes, and cultural activities, I am not a fan nor a follower of the traditional practices when it comes to sexual equality. Heck, I probably don’t subscribe to most traditional norms. Not anymore anyway.

    There was once a time when I said I’d never be Hmong, and that I was ashamed of being Hmong, for all the horrible things I saw wrong with being Hmong, sexual equality and mistreatment being one of them, but as I grew older, I realized I couldn’t escape my ethnicity. Fortunately, I speak, read, and write fluent in both English and Hmong and I remember what i was taught as a child, choosing to take the best of both worlds and ignoring the crap. I think it’s possible to be “Hmong” without being a total chauvinist jerk, and if the other guys see me as a caveout, they can kiss my ass.

    I appreciate your voice and passion on this topic, as I’m sure many of your silent readers do. You are a voice of reason and inspiration in the dark for many women in the Hmong community. While you seem to go in the face of the clan system, be aware that you are a heroine in my heart.

    As for divorce and the 18 clans, I’ve had my share of their nonsense. Suffice to say, I am a guy, 31 years old and after over ten years of marriage, I’ve finally had enough and agreed to a divorce. While I wasn’t physically abused, I was emotionally abused many times over through the years. Emotional abuse can be as bad as physical abuse, because the scars rot you from deep inside and can’t be seen by the naked eye. I was never a fan of divorce, but under repeated threats of divorce every few weeks, I finally realized I shouldn’t let my children be used as hostages to keep me trapped in a loveless, Hmong shotgun marriage. I was keen enough to use my Jedi mind tricks to bring the flak down and we are divorcing amicably, but my point is — sometimes, divorce is necessary.

    I hope all your readers find your words inspirational, empowering, and most of all life changing, because no one deserves to be treated like shit, man or woman. It’s that passion in your voice and your super ninja writing style that draws me to your posts, so anyone is lucky to have you as a friend, and even more luck to have you as a wife.

    Keep up your spirit and keep writing.

    • MaiBao October 20, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

      Many victims and survivors state that they’d rather be physically abused than verbally and emotionally. Bruises heal, but those hurtful, demeaning words stay with a person for a very long time. I am glad you shared your story with me. Thank you. And I am a ninja, writing little by little for individual empowerment and societal change. That’s my way of the ninja.

    • MaiBao October 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

      I also want to add that I, too, went through a phase during my adolescent years when I refused to have anything to do with my culture. And the reason is because of the patriarchal traditions of the Hmong culture.

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