Divorce is frowned upon in our culture because it means you failed. The onus is put on the woman to strive to maintain and she is mostly blamed when a marriage disintegrates. Why didn’t you do more to keep your man? What did you do to make him unhappy? Did you not satisfy him for him to stray? So we tell our young nyabs (married female relatives) to endure more. Whatever the case is, the answer is always to endure. I’ve encountered one very young male individual who absolutely hated divorced women for no apparent reasoning. He saw them as the problem to everything, when in fact, they were liberated from this patriarchal system that sometimes indentured them to their married family. Not all Hmong marriages are unhappy and not all Hmong marriages are lacking, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues that are apparent. Oftentimes, people do not want to acknowledge the bad things because they do not want the whole to be painted in a bad light, and in doing so, these issues are never addressed from the few. This happens across all cultures and societies and we simply sweep it under the rug at the expense of women, minorities, the LGBT community, and more.
When there are more options, that means there is room for more than one voice, and some people are afraid of change. It is okay to be afraid of change, but to not allow these voices to come through is oppression and oppression comes in many forms. We use oppression through power, beliefs, and cultural and societal norms as propaganda to enforce our power. In our culture, a divorced woman is essentially branded a pariah and treated as less than in society, while a man is not seen in the same light. What this does is create an imbalanced power structure where men can choose to abuse their position in a relationship and women can choose to accept the abuse. This does not just exist in our culture, but cultures everywhere. When a woman is afraid of becoming a social pariah, she will choose to suffer many indignities because she knows what her fate will hold for her.
As a nyab, some young girls are subjected to harsh mother-in-laws who force them to cook and clean around the clock because they have been bought. This is another power structure that forces women to bow down to their elders because they feel indebted to them because money has been paid to their parents. Sometimes, this money is seen simply as an offering and is given to the married couple to start their lives, but in some cases, it can be used as leverage to control a woman who isn’t behaving as her husband would like. Some argue that it is a perfectly sound custom because we’ve been doing it for centuries, and it is, but there are people who exist who exploit this system for their gain, and once again, it is at the expense of women.
When a woman chooses divorce, she chooses to empower herself, and I think some people are afraid of that power. When a woman stands up to her mother-in-law, it topples the power structure, and some people resent that, but that is how change comes about. If we Hmong women want change, we must know that the change lies in us. When you choose to stand up for yourself, you gain the ire of the community, but you will also command their respect. For you can either choose to have them accepting of you and not their respect, or you can choose to have their disapproval and their respect. We are so afraid to stand up for ourselves because we don’t want to upset the balance of society, but it has always been stacked against you. The change that must come about will come in having your voice heard. When you are heard, you will know the power that you hold and no one can take that away from you.