Social Issues

“Girls Will Be Happy If They Get Married Crying.”

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.

5 thoughts on ““Girls Will Be Happy If They Get Married Crying.”

  1. For the Hmong who are outside of the US and still practice bridenapping, I feel conflicted. Personally (though I’m a bit sad to admit it) I feel like Hmong marriages never really revolved around the idea of ‘I love you, let’s get married’ to begin with and revolved more around what the parents ‘want’ or think is best so in that sense, these bridenappings ‘make sense’ to me because from what I know and what I’ve seen, if the parents were truly and really against their daughter(s) marrying the kidnapper, then they aren’t gonna let their daughters go. If their daughters were successfully kidnapped, then the parents aren’t just going to meekly give her up. If the parents ‘like’ or think the kidnapper is a good choice of husband, then the kidnapping is more approved by them and the task is more successful.

    For the Hmong in the US … I feel like most bridenappings that occur are voluntary. Maybe it’s just where I live, but unless the bride agrees to go with the potential husband, it’s really hard for a kidnapping to occur without the police getting involved which almost always ends up with the girl being returned home. I also feel like the Hmong community itself does not educate their daughters and sons as a whole on the other ways to get married. Up until my freshman year of college, I always thought that this process of bridenapping was the only way how you could get married. I was never taught that the guy, instead of kidnapping you, could come to your house and ask for your hand in marriage from your parents. (I forget the official phrase).

    I do wonder if there are statistics stating how many of bridenappings were really against the woman’s will. (Though I can see how such statistics would probably have a wide margin of error) I ask this because I feel like, for the most part, bridenappings occur between two individuals who have at least met and talked to each other. These bridenappings that are showcased and popularized are almost always the violent and really bad ones so it shocks those who see it, but it could be that such bridenappings are a very small minority (not that it excuses those bridenappings).

    1. I think what you’re referring to is not zij poj niam, but rather coj poj niam los (bringing the bride home). There is a difference between the two. Bringing the bride home is kind of like eloping. She willingly goes with the groom to his house. Bride-napping is when they take her when she doesn’t want to go.

  2. When a woman is not educated that she has a choice to refuse to participate and refuse the potential, um recipient (I can’t even call him groom), then it is a cruel custom.

    For others who read my comment, understand my background:

    I am 2nd generation born in Canada, Chinese. My parents immigrated from China just after Mao took over in 1950’s. And in a half-hearted way, at least the Communists abolished the required bride dowry, foot binding, tried to observe women hold up “half of heaven”, etc.

    My mother was a picture bride and did not meet my father in person before she landed in Canada. They exchanged photos and letters for a few months. Then bingo….marriage..then 12months later, me their lst child (followed by 5 kids.)

    So I am not naïve about “alternate”, arranged marriages. However I believe my mother was extremely lucky and she has said this herself, that she married a guy whom she barely knew, who did not beat her, verbally abuse her but treated her with respect …though she was housewife all her life. He willingly has helped out with housework post his work retirement as cook. He is now dying of cancer and she’s worried about him, herself (whom she has depended for Chinese-English translations because she chose not to learn English.)

    So I am quite critical of this bridenapping custom…to me, it’s terrible and if it causes crying and fierce unwillingness by the woman: it’s wrong and violation of her rights in freedom of choice.

    I really don’t care what others think (particularily men who think it’s not harmful. I just think some of the women who might half-support this custom, don’t know anything better/ afraid/ resigned): I have the experience of observing how my parents’ 55+ year long “traditional” marriage works. It’s not perfect but hey, as their children, we are incredibly lucky to have parents united in their values and a marriage with lots of thoughtful communication amongst themselves.

  3. This is infuriating. It’s infuriating on multiple levels:

    – That it’s looked down upon in the community yet it’s still practiced
    – The parents of the girl cannot (generally) do anything
    – That we don’t really know if it’s “normal practice” or not!

    I think the third point gets me the most. We excuse it as “normal” yet we don’t really know if it’s normal practice or not. It may be practiced, but it might not be of the norm, since bridenapping is generally the man’s last way of getting a wife for himself due to whatever circumstance he’s in (poor, criminal, etc).

    I might be in denial here about it being “normal,” but I strongly believe that it’s not normal — that it is abnormal. It is hard to believe that this practice which is frowned upon within the community would be practiced so much that it’s considered normal.

    I also think that we are in disillusion if we believe that a woman has a choice after she has been bridenapped. The reason for this is that the parents and community will already believe that there has been sexual assault/rape even if there was none, making it so that there really is no choice but to go forward even if she doesn’t want to. The choices have already been taken away from her once she enters the man’s house.

    The practice, whether it is normal or not, is still appalling all the same. I think what gets me the most about the video though, is that you can clearly see how proud he is about kidnapping this girl when seeing foreigners. I am sad to see the video cut off, as it cut off when one of them say, “Hey!”

  4. I would like to think that this practice is not normal. I have read conflicting information about this practice in published works, but I would like to believe that this is frowned upon and not of the norm within the culture.

    I think the most infuriating thing about the video is towards the end, he proudly states what he is doing to foreigners and the video cuts off at one of them going, “Hey!”

    I also believe that we are in a disillusion if we believe the woman has a choice regardless of what choice is offered (i.e. the 3 day grace period). Once taken, the choices have evaporated, since the community and parents will already think that sexual assault has already happened regardless if there has been or not. It is hard to believe that a woman in this regard has a choice of going back to her parents once bridenapped this way, and that they will not lose face or welcome her back if she so chooses too, and if the community will welcome her back as well, or view her as a pariah.

    However, I do agree that “cog poj niam los” is quite different than “zij poj niam,” but sometimes when I think about it, the only difference is the illusion of choice.

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