Hmong Women Speak Out On Patriarchy, Sexism In The Traditional Community Clan Structure

By Ashley Wong The Sacramento Bee

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Ashley Wong takes a look at Hmong culture which some women say is toxic and misogynistic.


After Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly was accused of attempting to use the clan system to silence online criticism against him, he took issue with media characterizations of the clan system, comparing it to a "Native American peace circle."

But on social media and in interviews with The Sacramento Bee, several Hmong women said that, in practice, the clan system can be a toxic, patriarchal hierarchy that quashes female perspectives by continuing to populate the positions of power within the clans with older men.

"It's led by men, it's in favor of men, and to this day, it still is," said Yia Vue, a Central Valley-based Hmong American writer.

The Hmong community consists of 18 clans, with each person's clan identifiable by their last name. It's, in theory, a neutral tool, several Hmong Americans said, a system only meant to resolve conflicts, uphold traditions and provide mutual aid for Hmong folks.

The idea, several California Hmong Americans said, is that Hmong folks can turn to their family members when they need help with anything from organizing a wedding to mediating personal conflicts. Elders in the clans can also help to uphold and pass down Hmong traditions such as funeral and marriage rituals.

"A lot of the decisions they would make would be for the collective good, the clan or the community," said Seng Vang, a Hmong American lecturer who teaches Asian American studies at California State University, Stanislaus, and writing at the University of California, Merced.

The system worked especially well when more Hmong people were living in remote mountainous villages of Laos, Thailand, and China, Vang said. Then, she said, the clan system was beneficial to help Hmong communities avoid infighting or protect villages from outsiders, especially given how geographically isolated these communities often were.

Since the Hmong first came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1980s, the influence of the clan system has waned. For second-and third-generation Hmong Americans, the clan system is seen as an outdated resource unequipped to deal with issues like mental health, domestic violence or exploring LGBTQ identities. Language and cultural barriers also limit how much influence older, more traditional Hmong elders can exercise over younger Hmong Americans.

"This kind of organization, it only works if people listen to them," Vang said. And it ignores the whole truth to point fingers at misogyny in Hmong communities without acknowledging it persists in America as well. All Americans face the problems, several Hmong Americans emphasized, and these problems persist in the Hmong community in part because of social structures in the country.

"Patriarchy has historically influenced not only the Hmong community but the American culture as well," said Shery Yang, the California state Capitol's first Hmong chief of staff. "We just got to this realization a little bit later than others _ but we've gotten here after only about 45 years in the United States." ___ The Hmong community's internal power imbalance, several Hmong women said, starts with who holds leadership positions in the clans. Heterosexual older men have, they said, with the first female clan leader appointed less than five years ago to a Midwest clan.

"I think that is where there's a lot of issues," said Nkauj Yang, one of the directors of Sacramento-based Hmong Innovating Politics. "It does silence the women. Women don't have the decision-making power."

In a story in the Elk Grove Citizen, Ly compared the clan system to a "Native American peace circle" that works for "restorative justice." Vang said he thinks many Hmong women would disagree with that analogy.

"They've been in these kinds of spaces, and they haven't gotten equity in these kinds of spaces," Vang said. "The intention is there to try and mediate and resolve problems. But when women have no voice, when young people have no voice, there's no equity, there's no fairness, within this kind of organization."

The lack of female leaders can also create unfriendly environments for women in risky situations, several Hmong women said. For instance, they said, Hmong women often feel obligated to stay in bad marriages, even abusive ones. They would stay for the sake of their children, to avoid the stigma of being a female divorcee, and, shared by many Asian cultures, to uphold the family reputation.

"The way that the clan system works is ... they're always talking about, 'What can we do to diffuse the situation?'" said Linda Vue, Ly's former campaign manager, in a previous interview with The Bee. "Diffusing the situation is telling the women, 'Yes, your husband is wrong, but you need to suck it up.' We call it ua siab loj, (which means) to have a long heart, to be patient."

When Yia Vue's family tried to address cases of domestic abuse through the clans, she said, all the mediators were men. Besides the victim, only one other woman was present.

"How is that fair at all? You really have no advocacy," Yia Vue said.

Several Hmong women also noted smaller, more subtle forms of sexism. Nancy Xiong, one of HIP's directors, said she has attended professional events where older Hmong men will not shake her hand. If she has a male co-worker with her, she said, they'll usually shake his hand first.

Yia Vue said she's experienced the same treatment, but at family gatherings. The men in her family often greet her brother with a handshake, she said, but not her. On occasions, she has reached out to shake their hands and has been met with nervous laughter before they eventually reciprocated.

"It was awkward to stand there with your hand out and say, 'Shake my hand, brother,' and have them look at you," Yia Vue said. "When we talk about ingrained and systemic and indoctrinated misogyny, this is one of those things. You don't even really notice it sometimes."

Xiong echoed this. She had become so used to similar treatment from some of her family that when she experienced it in a professional setting, she didn't always realize it until afterward.

"It's just part of a bigger patriarchal system. We have to continue to try to dismantle that," Xiong said. ___ Nkauj Yang said she's seen a shift in the roles Hmong women have played in recent years, with more Hmong women getting opportunities such as access to higher education and taking on more leadership roles inside and outside the community's clans. HIP is run predominantly by Hmong women.

A growing generation of educated Hmong men also are learning and recognizing the effects of living in a patriarchal society more, she said. And the community is taking notice of the Hmong women who have found professional success, she said.

She can see the cultural shift in part from the increased acknowledgment she's received from Hmong men in her family for her work, she said, especially compared to her youth. But Hmong women shouldn't have to be in leadership positions to be equally acknowledged, she said.

And ultimately, these women agreed, issues such as women not being heard and the silencing of ongoing gender-based abuse would be handled far better if women were given the same opportunities as older Hmong men in the community. "I'm definitely a believer that ... we can still have some sort of clan system, but we give women a seat at the table," Nkauj Yang said. "Historically it has been ... just Hmong men who are making the decisions. That has been what has perpetuated the sexism that exists."

"If we can see ourselves being able to challenge that, I think there's a lot of opportunities to grow." ___ If these experiences sound familiar, it's probably because many women outside of the Hmong community have reported facing these same problems. Hmong Americans said they are wary of painting these issues as exclusively Hmong, when the country is still reckoning with systems that perpetuate misogyny.

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