Warning: Very emotionally tense videos ahead.
This is a video of a group of Black Hmong in Sapa, Vietnam. The young girl is being dragged by men who are practicing what we call zij poj niam—in other words, bride-napping.
I first saw this video circulating the social network sites at the end of last year. And now it has been uploaded and shared again, this time probably by a different YouTuber since the original video has been privated. When I first saw it, I was enraged and appalled at such abusive and traumatizing cultural practice. Then my heart ached and I cried for the helpless young girl.
Bride kidnapping was a very common practice when I was growing up in the 90’s. People are surprised when I tell them that this happened in the United States. Momma and Grams would warn me never to go with any man for fear that they would bride-nap me. That was one of the reasons why I never dated older men when my friends were dating men 10 years their senior. I was too scared that in a swift moment, I would be carted off and never see my family again.
I used to hear about it a lot. It happened to many Hmong girls who lived in the same town as I did. It is disturbing when you see it in Hmong movies. And it is horrifying when you see it happening to a person, even if you don’t know her—even if you’re only viewing it online, in the comfort of your home.
When a Hmong man zij a bride, it is customary that the groom’s family give the bride 3 days to make her decision. She has the choice to go back to her family if she wants to. Just because a man zij a bride, it doesn’t mean that he automatically gets to marry her. The wedding will not take place until the wedding negotiations are discussed nor is the wedding date set until the bride and her family agrees to the marriage.
However, how often do you think that a kidnapped bride returns home? From all of the people that I knew who were bride-napped, zero came home. Many simply do not know that they have the right to return home. They believe that they have no other choice, but to marry the man who kidnapped them. Many are manipulated (usually by other women) into staying. If a kidnapped bride returns home, she will bring shame upon her family. She should be happy to marry a man who wants her so bad that he resorts to kidnapping. In most extreme cases, some kidnapped brides are raped so they have no other choice but to stay because they are no longer “pure” or “innocent.”
Comments for the video varied. Most people criticized the Hmong community for practicing such a custom and allowing it to live through the generations. Many others criticized those who criticized this practice. Many commented on the bystanders, some asking why no one helped the young girl, some responding that no one intervened because zij poj niam is the norm. Some stated for the Western Hmong to stop criticizing when we don’t live in their world and do not understand their lifestyle.
The young bride-napped Hmong girl grew up in such a culture where zij poj niam is the norm. Maybe the actions of the bystanders shouldn’t matter to me because I can understand that they grew up in a place where this is normal. However, as much as I would like to say, “It’s the cultural norm and custom for the Hmong. Why should I impose my western ideals and perspective on these people,” I see the crying and screaming young girl who refused to go with these men. In the act of pulling her, they literally took off her clothes and it seems like she just gave up at the end. They are violating her human rights to say no to a marriage she does not want. And that is why I see this practice in such negativity. It’s not that I’m too “Americanized” to embrace my culture because even this “non-Americanized” girl does not appreciate or want any of this.
The Hmong are not the only group that practice bride-napping. A country known for bride-napping is Kyrgyzstan. It seems that the customs for bride-napping and wedding negotiations are similar to those of the Hmong.
Bride-napping reminds me of the cave men cartoons I used to watch during my childhood. The cavemen would drag the women by the hair to their caves. Sometimes I wonder why men would go through such extremes just to get a bride. Why do they have to violate another human being? It doesn’t take much to court/date a girl, make her fall in love with you, and then marry her. The top two reason I’ve heard from people as to why some Hmong men would resort to bride-napping are that they cannot pay the full bride-price or the girl refused to marry them. First of all, if you cannot afford to pay a bride-price for a bride, maybe it’s not time for you to get married. Secondly, if a girl doesn’t like you and doesn’t want to marry you, don’t you think it’s a good idea to leave her alone?
The English statement that one of the kidnappers made to the tourists at the end of the Hmong bride-napping video seem to depict zij poj niam as something to be proud and boastful about. He happily greeted them with “Hello!” then proceeded to say, “This is the tradition of kidnapping a wife.”
My maternal grandfather zij Grams on her way to the farm. Her girlfriends did not intervene for fear that my grandfather’s friends would zij them too. When I asked how my grams felt about it, she simply stated that even though she was scared, she couldn’t do anything about it. She didn’t kick and scream like the young girl. They grabbed her by her arms and pulled her. She protested and resisted the whole way to my grandfather’s house. She married my grandfather because she felt she didn’t have a choice and also felt that it was her destiny.
Does that mean that I should be glad that my grandfather zij Grams? Because if he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today to comment on the barbaric nature of bride-napping. Sometimes I wonder about my grandmother and mother’s generations and how bride-napping was so common then. During my Grams’ generation, divorce was unheard of and even if you were bride-napped, you just learn to love and make it work. According to my Grams, my grandfather was a patient man and loved her dearly. He never raised his voice at her. But then again, maybe my Grams’ marriage is an exception.
So, do we, the Hmong in the United States, still zij poj niam? I don’t know. I can say that the stories of young girls being bride-napped that I hear has dwindled down to only one every couple of years. Maybe I’m just not in-tuned with my Hmong community. Maybe the Hmong has come to fear the laws of this land. Or maybe our younger generation realize the barbaric nature of bride-napping and have come to desire love before marriage.