Hmong commentary on 'bad women' draws backlash

Doua Chialy Her on his talk show
Doua Chialy Her on his talk show, presenting the commentary titled "Bad Women."
Screen shot from Doua Chialy Her Talkshow

A St. Paul talk-show host who calls himself the Hmong Jerry Springer has received death threats and hate messages for a commentary about Hmong widows and divorcees.

His 14-minute essay was broadcast online last month on the website Hmong TV, in a video titled "Bad Women." In the video, host Doua Chialy Her — dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and striped tie — tells viewers in Hmong that his goal is to help Hmong men, because divorced Hmong women have no value.

"Today I want you to put your ego aside, to make up your mind and change your ways, admit you have been wrong, accept you were bad and showed little respect for your husband," he advises. "You followed your own path, that's why you are now a divorcee."

Later in the video, the 50-year-old says divorced Hmong women in the United States "can cause the death of their husband, can cause his heart to stop, can cause her husband to have diabetes and high blood pressure." He implies that Hmong divorcees are only good for sex.

"I'm sorry to say that the good Hmong men will not want to marry you," he says. "Only the men who need you at night will have you."

Nancy Her, the daughter of Doua Chialy
Nancy Her, the daughter of Doua Chialy Her, defended her father, saying he is a kind man who has been supportive of her as a single mother.
Courtesy Nancy Her

The video went viral on Facebook and generated such fury online that Hmong TV took down the commentary from its website and YouTube channel. A petition demanding an apology from the talk-show host was started on Change.org, and garnered more than 3,000 signatures. A Hmong women's group created several hashtags on Twitter, including #‎HmongWomenStand2Gether.

Doua Chialy Her produced several follow-up videos, talking with women upset by his video. And he offered what some say is a partial apology. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but referred questions to his daughter, Nancy Her, a manager at Hmong TV.

"Whether people don't believe me or not, I know that his video ... was not intended to degrade any group of people, but to lecture in the Hmong way," she said.

The Hmong way, she said, is like that of a father figure preaching to his children.

"Some of the words that he chose were not the best word choices," she conceded, "but at the same time, it gave us an opportunity to fix culture issues." She said her father is a kind man, a Christian who's been supportive of her as a single mom.

The talk-show host has received some support from Hmong men and women who agree with his comments, but most responses have been critical.

PaZoua Vue at her high school graduation
PaZoua Vue, of Schofield, Wis., just graduated from DC Everest Senior High School. Vue objected to the commentary, and posted her response on Facebook.
Courtesy PaZoua Vue

Eighteen year-old PaZoua Vue, who is starting this fall at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, said she learned in high school that "we all need to be treated equally and that we deserve to be treated equally."

"Why do we have to be this obedient little girl that ... people expect us to be?" she asked. "Why can't we have the right to do what we want to do, and ... be independent?" But in Hmong culture, independence can come at a price.

PaDer Vang married 23 years ago, when she was just 17. Six years later, she divorced.

"Absolutely, I was blamed for my divorce," she said. "Absolutely. I was told to go back and beg my ex-husband to take me back."

She gave him a son. She believed she was a dutiful Hmong wife. She gave her husband every paycheck. But she felt worthless, she said, and realized "that I need a way out. This isn't the life that I wanted."

When she heard about the Hmong TV commentary, she tried to watch it, but couldn't finish. It was too traumatic, she said.

PaDer Vang now studies Hmong teen marriages.
PaDer Vang, an assistant professor at St. Catherine's University, was divorced years ago after being married at 17. She now researches teenage Hmong marriages.
Courtesy PaDer Vang

Vang's son is now grown, and she has a 9-year-old daughter with a new partner. She has a Ph.D. in social work and is an assistant professor at St. Catherine University.

As a divorcee, she's been living on the periphery of the tight-knit Hmong community in the Twin Cities.

"And that's why it's so hard for Hmong women," she said. "They want to stay, because it's their community. You know, it's my community. And I deserve to be a part of my community."

According to American Community Survey data from five years ago, only about 4.6 percent of Hmong age 15 and older reported they were divorced. That's less than half the average divorce rate in the United States. But in the Hmong culture, there are many common law marriages that are not registered or recognized by the state.

Those include marriages between a young bride and a much older man, or marriages in which one man has two or three wives. In those cases, some women don't even pursue child support if the marriage ends.

Bo Thao-Urabe, founder of a St. Paul group that works to raise awareness about gender-based violence in Hmong communities around the world, was alarmed to hear the talk-show host say that he and other men can collect $500 each to help Hmong men in the United States go back to Laos to get younger, more obedient wives.

"There are practices that are harmful to our community," she said, adding that such practices are "not only harmful to Hmong women, they're harmful to families."

Tou Ger Bennett-Xiong produced a counter-video
Tou Ger Bennett Xiong produced a counter-video on YouTube that has received 40,000 hits.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Tou Ger Bennett Xiong, a Hmong community activist and organizer who volunteers to help domestic violence victims, produced a counter-video and posted it on YouTube. His video has been viewed more than 40,000 times.

"His language and his terminology, which when you translate in Hmong, is very derogatory," he said. "Anytime you see a person as subhuman, it justifies your right to do harm to them."

Bennett Xiong said the host of the Hmong TV talk show doesn't represent his ideal Hmong-American man.

"A real Hmong-American man would actually say the very opposite," he said: "Hey, we have a sister who's divorced, who has three kids, and is a single mother. How can we support programs that would help her get back on her feet?"

He's doing this with ManForward, a group that works with Hmong boys and men to promote gender equity in the Hmong community. On its Facebook page, there's an open letter to Doua Chialy Her asking him to be part of the solution in building healthier Hmong families, instead of reinforcing a patriarchal system.

Editor's note: Photo captions that appeared with an earlier version of this story used only part of Doua Chialy Her's name.

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