I volunteer at […], my local non-profit organization that works to empower victims and survivors of domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault (SA). In July, as part of our cultural awareness program, I was asked to do a presentation on barriers Hmong women face in seeking help for DV and SA. I was ecstatic because I love educating others on my culture.
As I prepared my presentation, I was overwhelmed by how many traditional norms there are which prevent Hmong women from seeking help outside of the Hmong community. These are not just barriers that prevent Hmong women and advocates from communicating and understanding each other, but also norms that prevent Hmong women from even thinking about seeking outside help.
The Hmong society is very patriarchal. The men make the rules and the women follow them. The men are the clan leaders. The men are the head of the families. The men make all the “big” decisions. Sons are valuable assets to a family because they are the ones who will carry on the clan name and are expected to take care of the parents in old age.
Women are viewed as second class. Our role is to simply take care of the men and bear their children. Daughters are not desirable because once we’re married, we belong to our husband’s family and take on his clan name. Thus, there is a general lack of respect for women.
The Hmong society has very rigid gender roles. A man should be strong, in control, and never show emotions. A man should have a job to support his family. He is the “man of the house.” He should put his wife “in check.” A woman should be subservient, listen to her husband, stay at home, and know her place. She is not encouraged to have an education or a job, although this is changing in America. And because of this change, it has caused a lot of conflicts in marriages where the husband is slow to assimilate.
Hmong people put great emphasis on their families, clans, and the good of the group as a whole. Every major decision made by an individual should be based on how it would help the family, not how it would benefit said individual.
Domestic violence is accepted as a norm in the general Hmong communities. There is no such thing as DV and what is consider DV in America is considered normal Hmong marital disputes. (Keep in mind that not every Hmong person accepts DV or abuses their partner). Hmong women face many challenges associated with DV in America. The biggest challenge is their tie to their culture and traditions.
Just imagine growing up in a culture where the males have the authority and you’re taught 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.
The Hmong have a clan system. There are a total of 18 clans. Your clan takes care of your problems. Usually when a married couple is having marital problems, they will discuss their problems with their clan leaders. If a woman seeks the elders for help because her husband is abusing her, most likely, they will tell her to go back home, be patient, and deal with it. Why? Because DV is a marital problem and divorce is discouraged.
To many Hmong women, divorce is not the answer (Although, the number of divorces in Hmong marriages has risen over the past decade). Divorce is a stigma. Many women will use divorce as their last resort because of the Hmong value of “saving face” and reputation.
As a teen, I heard my mom scold me so many times on how she lost her “face” because of my improper actions. And because of this, you learn to live carefully not to offend another and not to lose your or your family’s “face.” If you divorced your husband because he is abusive, no one would see that. All they would see is that a woman abandoned her duty as a wife. And not only do you bring down your own reputation, but the reputation of your family as well.
I know a woman who was abused by her ex-husband for years. She would take her kids and run to her father’s house every time she feared for her and her children’s lives. And each time, her father and uncles would tell her to go back to her husband and make the marriage work. She did this for 16 years, and each time feeling more helpless. The last time her husband nearly killed her. She took her children and ran. Her father had passed away, so she didn’t have the obligation to save his “face” and go back to her husband. Even though, she may have tainted her name in the Hmong community, discarding the Hmong values her parents bestowed upon her that prevented her from seeking help was one of the greatest things she did in her life. Because after that, she finally was able to seek help. She has not looked back since then.
This is only one story of the many Hmong women that have been abused by their husbands and were told by respected elders in their clan to be patient, go back, and endure it because marriage and saving face should be valued over anything else, even one’s own safety.
A lot of the time, because many Hmong people are so tied into their traditions, that even if the tradition is a bad one, they still accept it because it is the norm. And because it is the norm, it is hard for someone to question why it is accepted.
[Sighs]. I am very sensitive and passionate about this topic because my mom is a DV survivor. Some would say I have a feminist biased view on the Hmong patriarchal society, and I guess you can say that. It leaves a permanent scar in your mind when you have grown up and witnessed your mother, your siblings, yourself, and many Hmong women and children out there go through what you have been through.
In a sense, I am glad that the younger Hmong generations are changing. There are still those who follow the ways of their forefathers and will teach them to their children. However, we are changing. I love my culture. The language. The clothes. The art of embroidery, dance, and music. Hmong New Year. Cow shit soup. Hmong sausages. And so much more. These I wish will never disappear. On the other hand, I hope that our younger generations can let go of our patriarchal society that views women as second class and our ignorance to domestic violence so that all Hmong women can have a sense of relief.