On the day MayKao Hang married, her father told her she was no longer part of their [the Yang] clan. She now belonged to the Hang clan—her husband’s clan. She recalls her father saying, your mother’s womb is what you borrowed. Then he told Hang that her new mother-in-law was now her mother. Hang remembers his words made her cry.
When a girl marries, she ceases to be part of her birth family and becomes part of her husband’s family and his clan. Hmong women have very little power within the clan structure and if a woman is in an abusive relationship, she usually has nowhere to turn for help. It is that sense of powerlessness Hang has made it her mission to change.
“The pressures felt by Hmong girls and women are tremendous,” said Hang.
Hang, 36, knows she is not like most Hmong women. Rather than abide by the staunchly patriarchal belief system prevalent in Hmong culture, she chose to follow her dreams. She received a full scholarship to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and earned a BA in Psychology. After returning to Saint Paul, she received a Masters of Arts in Public Affairs from the Humphrey Institute. Now she is a student in Hamline University’s Public Administration Program, in pursuit of her doctoral degree. In the Hmong community, this makes her atypical.
“Girls are not encouraged to pursue education…They aren’t even told they can have dreams,” Hang said.
Hang is the Director of Children and Family Services at Wilder Foundation, where she works with troubled families on St. Paul’s East Metro area—the hub of the Hmong community in Minnesota. In addition, she is one of the co-founders of Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together; an organization working to end the sexism and violence that subjugates Hmong women and girls. Confronting deeply entrenched attitudes is challenging; however, Hang believes valuing Hmong women as individuals will strengthen the entire Hmong community.
Both personally and professionally, Hang strives to show Hmong girls and women that they do have a voice and it deserves to be heard. Because of her dedication, Hang will be honored with the Ann Bancroft Foundation’s prestigious Dream Maker Award later this month.
Just as Ann Bancroft’s Antarctic explorations have inspired many women to take risks in pursuit of their dreams, the Ann Bancroft Foundation recognizes others who “encourage and support the achievements of girls and women” with their Dream Maker award. Each year, ABF selects four Minnesotans who help girls and women reach their full potential as the recipients of the Dream Maker Award. The foundation has bestowed this honor on behalf of Ann Bancroft for the past 12 years.
Hang will join the three other Minnesotans as the honored guests at ABF’s annual Gala on April 29. She sees the award as confirmation of her life’s work. She also feels receiving an award of this caliber to be a humbling experience.
“It’s a big award…It meant a lot to be recognized by friends and colleagues,” said Hang.
This recognition also affords Hang with the opportunity to share with the larger community why she is determined to change the Hmong patriarchal system.
Hang arrived in Minnesota when she was six years old, after first spending two years in Milwaukee. She has memories of her family running for their lives from the soldiers in Laos. Terrified they would be captured or killed, the only way they avoided the soldiers was by hiding in a village of lepers.
As horrific as her life was in Laos, Hang says her experiences are not unlike most refugees and does not believe it is the motivation behind her need to help women. That desire comes from witnessing how the Hmong clan system uniformly relegates girls to second-class status.
Within the Hmong community, people are beholden to both their immediate family and their clan. A clan is anyone who shares a common ancestry; that ancestry is traced through the father’s lineage. Thus, anyone with the same last name is part of the same clan.
In the Hmong community, male leaders have the power to arrange marriage, settle disputes and address social justice issues. Girls leave their birth family and join their husband’s clan; boys remain within their birth clan. Because of this, Hmong families believe it is a waste of financial resources to educate their girls; however, educating the boys is considered a wise investment.
“It shouldn’t be that you should ration your investment,” said Hang.
One member of her clan did invest in her. Hang’s aunt from California sent her $20 to help her as she struggled financially at college. Her aunt, who had never attended college herself, understood Hang deserved recognition.
Hang never forgot her aunt’s generous act. Years later Hang flew her aunt’s three daughters from California to live with her in Saint Paul while her aunt recovered from a stroke. During their stay, Hang opened their eyes to a world with endless possibilities. Apparently, her investment paid off because now one of the girls is a sophomore in college.
Hang’s goal is not to dismantle the Hmong culture; she actually holds the clan structure in high regard. However, she hopes over time the clan structure will adapt to become more inclusive for women because women need to have a voice at the table. Hang believes seeing women as peers rather than subordinates will enhance the Hmong community.
“It doesn’t mean going against Hmong culture. It could mean embracing culture. We living today have the power to redefine culture everyday,” said Hang.
Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.
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