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 For second-and third-generation Hmong Americans, the clan system is seen as an outdated resource unequipped to deal with issues like mental health, domestic violence or exploring LGBTQ identities.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.”
Hmong women discuss power
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.
A glacial shift toward equity
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.”
Patriarchy an Americanized issue, not just Hmong
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.
Many Hmong Americans emphasized that problems such as gender-based violence and sexism due to a patriarchal society abound across all American communities, and are often amplified and upheld by American social structures. Hmong culture, Vang said, is not to blame.
“It’s not like we just came here with our issues,” Nkauj Yang said. “We’ve made a home, but we’ve also experienced the extreme violence from the issues that exist here in America as well.”
So what does gender equity, and the work of moving toward more equality, within the Hmong community look like? Part of the solution, several said, starts by simply opening up Hmong community leadership to more than just older Hmong men.
In particular, women who have dealt with sexual assault and other abuse need to feel that their voices are being valued rather than minimized, Nkauj Yang said. The community – both the Hmong community and the country at large – just isn’t there yet, she said.
“Gender-based violence can be dealt with better if we had a more diverse community … that is able to come in and address things,” Nkauj Yang said. “It’s not unique to the Hmong community, but it does exist in the Hmong community because 99% of the time it’s Hmong men making decisions.”
It’s also about recognizing the root causes of some of the forms of gender discrimination in the community, Nkauj Yang said. For instance, the history of the emasculation of Asian American men has perpetuated the adoption of standards of toxic masculinity in the community, including the Hmong.
“I feel like most of what is happening … is really starting with the self, unpacking all the issues and trauma that we have,” Nkauj Yang said. “We have the power and decision to lessen that trauma and not pass it on to our own kids. We have to build our own social capital … and value our own voices.”
In the short term, she said, she’d like to see Hmong women able to make independent decisions to leave unhappy marriages on a good note without having to worry about being shamed for being a divorcee, or about how it could harm their reputation or their ability to support their children. Younger generations are already embracing this, she said, but this shift has yet to become widely accepted.
“Personally, I think that it takes courage to self-reflect not only on our individual growth but holistically as well,” Shery Yang said. “It takes conversations, questions, challenges and the core belief of why Hmong people came to America in the first place, the belief in democracy — in which every voice and story matters.”