Hmong marriage customs detailed in professor’s speech

Elizabeth Giorgi

Different aspects of the Hmong culture are relevant to the Twin Cities community.

St. Paul has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country, and University curriculum and instruction professor Bic Ngo spoke about the culture Monday afternoon in Wulling Hall.

The speech, titled “Hmong Marriage Customs: Feminism, Transformation, and Legislation,” was geared toward teaching people at the University about aspects of the Hmong culture they may not be aware of, Ngo said.

The complications of marriage are difficult for many Americans, but for Hmong-Americans, it can be a legal matter.

“Marriage is the most significant event in the Hmong life course,” she said.

Hmong marriage customs are different from American customs, and there is a history of attempts to make Hmong marriages legally recognized by the Minnesota government, Ngo said.

The marriages were not recognized as legal because Hmong couples are married by a “mej kong” and not by a priest or judge, Ngo said.

In 1991, then-Rep. Andy Dawkins, DFL-St. Paul, proposed a bill to make Hmong marriages legal. The bill did not pass at the time, Ngo said.

In 2002, state Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, followed Dawkins’ lead and attempted to reintroduce the bill. Moua withdrew the bill in February 2002 after it faced much opposition, she said.

She said proponents of the bill also aimed to curb the number of underage and polygamous marriages within the Hmong community.

According to Ngo, opponents of the bill, including some senators and special interest groups, said “Hmong marriages perpetuate cultural practices that oppress women.”

Ngo said Hmong family lifestyles in America are different from the images sometimes seen in the media.

The Star Tribune’s October “Shamed into Silence” series perpetuated some confusion about the Hmong culture, Ngo said.

An excerpt from the article that Ngo referenced included the following:

“By losing her virginity without marriage – even violently, against her will – she had violated a basic tenet of her Hmong culture. If her family found out, they would feel forever shamed. She feared her culture would require her to marry one of her attackers to save her reputation.”

Ngo said the article portrays Hmong marriage systems in a way that isn’t necessarily true of traditional Hmong culture. Many Hmong-American families would not uphold that standard, she said.

“Cultures change slightly when they are entered into a new one,” she said.

Genetic counseling graduate student Melissa Fladseth said she attended the event to learn more about the Hmong culture and conduct research for a class.

“It is interesting learning about the adaptations that come along with joining a new culture,” Fladseth said.