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Hmong Contemporary Issues
Hmoob cov Xwm Txheej rau Tiam no
Les Problématiques contemporaraines des Hmong


Essay
Critique on the Hmong Bride Price
What is the Price of a Woman in the Hmong Weddings?

by Kao-Ly Yang, PhD

1. The Bride Price Replaced in its Cultural Context

In the Hmong weddings, all grooms must pay a price --in the form of currency or silver bar-- for their bride. This amount of money paid to the bride's parents is named the “bride price”. Until today, this practice still exists in the Hmong communities in Asia and in the Diaspora in the West.

First of all, let's differentiate the notions of "bride price" (nqe tshoob) and "dowry" (khoom phij cuam), which are two different categories in the Hmong culture. The dowry is composed of gifts, either money, objects or things, offered by parents, relatives and friends to the new couple. One can give whatever one wants to them. There is no prescription or specific amount. The dowry is not as crucial as the bride price even if it is carefully recorded during the wedding. In fact, the dowry is perceived as accessory whereas the bride price stays essential.


To understand the social signifance of the bride price, one needs to seize the purposes of the Hmong marriage. Getting married means for a woman, both spiritually and physically, leaving her family for her husband's lineage. In consequence, she loses her individual identity, e.g. first name, clan surname, lineage belonging, right to die in her parents' house, and freedom of thought, of conscience, of religion at the expense of her husband: once married, all will call her by her husband's first name preceded by the appropriate kin terms. For any decisions such as pursueing her education or accepting a job, she would need his approval in conversative households or in the traditional settings.
As for a man, marrying means reaching a social maturity and becoming a productive member, otherwise in the traditional settings being capable to build a house for his future family and to find a wife.
As for the society, beyond serving the purpose of human and cultural reproduction of the group, the marriage constitutes the core of the social exchange, and a time of socio-legal regulations for any existing unresolved conflicts, injustice or political matters. Women are symbolically objects of exchanges and bearers of values through this social exchange, functioning in differed term. The Hmong mariage remains a rite where the bride plays an intrinsic and fundamental role in the regulation of the norms and standards of the society. Assigning a price to a bride signifies attributing a value to the exchange and sealing a social contract between two lineages for a lifetime. Through the oral literature and popular perception, the marriage is also viewed as a trial (ib rooj plaub) where the defendant is the groom's lineage, and the plaintiff, the bride's family. Long and laborious negotiations are traditionally proceded to finally agree on a bride price, otherwise payment to compensate the loss of a daughter.

Manifestly, paying a bride price occupies all future grooms' minds because such a cultural practice is prescribed, non-negotiable and highly variable depending on each household's demand -- in other words, neither lineage nor clan could fix a unique bride price applicable to all marriages in a local Hmong community even if collective effort was put to find set up a unique price. The bride price is perceived by most young men as a dead burden in Southeast Asia, and in the West as an old fashioned practice. In fact, in the years of 2000, the bride price went from $5,000 to the phenomenal amount of $ 50,000 in the United States. In France, in 2005, it was between 3,000 and 15,000 euros.

The linguistic analysis brings the understanding of the bride price to another level. There are several vernacular expressions to categorize it:
     1. “Nqe tshoob” (Wedding price)
     2. "Nqe taub hau" (Bride’s head)
     3. “Nqe mis nqe hno” (Price of milk and meal)


The two first expressions, “Nqe tshoob” (Wedding price) and "Nqe taub hau" (Head's price), are permutable even if the first one “nqe tshoob” is interpreted by Hmong people as more appropriate for discourse --because it concerns the overall payment of the bride in a wedding-- whereas the second expression specifically targets the payment of the bride as a member of the household lost in a transaction. As for the third expression “Nqe mis nqis hno” (Price of milk and meal), it refers to the payment of the nourishment, of milk drunk as infant, and of meals consumed before being able to produce for the household. This latter expression only concerns the payment to the parents for their care, which is only a part of the bride price.
In the overall, these three expressions cover the various meanings attached to the bride price. From the linguistic analysis, one can deduce that the bride price has the purpose to pay the debt of nourishment and breeding, and to compensate the loss of a member's potential labor for the household.

Through the advice and reminders specified during the wedding, the bride price reveals to be a warranty for the bride's safety: parents see it as a way to protect their daughter in case of domestic volence and injustice. If she was beaten or rejected by the family-in-law, not only the daughter would be given back to her original lineage, the bride price would be also reimbursed.

2. The Symbolic Role of the Bride Price in the Social Exchange
 
The Exchange of Sisters
According to Claude Levi-Strauss, renowed French Anthropologist, the marriage is an institution where groups exchange women/sisters in differed time. This premise is relevant in the Hmong culture. Like in many other patriarchal societies, the Hmong lineages use women in their social exchange.

Maintaining the Continuity of the Social Relations
The goal of the social exchange is to maintain the continuity of all relations in any situations. Otherwise said, there mustn’t be any interruption or discontinuity while dealing with transactions between two persons, household, lineages or clans. Indeed, this is the case of the marriages that constitutes the chain of the social exchanges between differents lineages. What value or function does the the bride price have in this social exchange? If one didn't pay a price for a bride, what would happen? Obviously, the transaction could not succeed. So the bride pride stands here as the transcendental wielding or ferment in the transaction that can maintain the continuity between the two groups: from the bride's perspective, the price is needed to compensate the loss of a daughter. As for the groom's side, the price serves to counterbalance the taking of a daughter.  In the total, the exchange meets each other's prerogatives. Through marriage, both lineages establish new social relationships that will expand with the years to come, and move to eventually form a new society in changing the previous prerogatives, social contracts, deals, or social order. This networking usually takes place even during the marriage where members of both lineages acknowledge each other's ages, genders, and social status. For the Hmong people, the marriage marks a beginning of the new social order.
Additionally, if one extends this analysis to a more elaborate level, the bride price can be seen as a softener to smooth the social communication during the social interaction where the bride’s lineage has to give more -- because it gives away a human being-- and the groom’s lineage has to compensate with money for the time being before being able to give away in return, in differed time, a sister.
 
Overcoming the Unimaginable of Giving a Human Being Away and Forever
When a daughter gets married, she – her soul and body – has to totally integrate the new lineage. For example, when she died, her soul could not go back to her original lineage. This poses a fundamental problem regarding the ways cultures deal with human rights, gender equality and the notion of the person. So could one give away a sister or daughter without taking in consideration her status as a human being having the same right, even if such a practice seems normal in patriarchal societies where women are perceived as "objects" of exchange? That is noticeably contradictory. How does each culture solve this contradiction and find plausible, coherent and relevant pratices to transcend it? For the Hmong culture, to surpass the contradiction, is attached to the bride price a symbolic value: the bride pride is not seen as a financial payment in exchange of a human being, but more as a promise to give in exchange a sister later on accordingly to Claude Levi-Strauss' premise.
All in all, Hmong people define the bride price as a symbolic gift or debt, far from being equal to a human being, the conterpart of the exchange. Nevertheless, the bride price represents a symbolic object, a social warranty, or a social capital that has the power to overcome, sweeten, or annihilate the impossible, unimaginable transaction of giving away a human being -- where a human being (the groom) pays a price for another human being (the bride)).  In simple term, the bride pride serves the purpose to humanize the exchange. In the Hmong culture, women are perceived, not as "objects", but human beings, daughters, wives or mothers.


3. Socio-Cultural Criticism and Feminist Perspective

Socio-Cultural Critique: Does the Practice of the Bride Pride Truly Contribute to Preserve the Hmong Culture?
Hmong People conceive the bride price as an institution. Some believe that it must change. Yet, all feel it is needed because it constitutes the core of the social exchange, foundation of the Hmong culture. In the United States, in the years of 2000, important Hmong women, well-known female leaders who advocated for domestic violence, gender equal rights, or even lead national organizations, still found in the practice of the bride pride an essential asset to maintain the Hmong culture, whereas the pride bride might be the source of inequality between men and women. Most of them accepted it as a custom even if they didn’t believe in its efficiency at maintaining a low rate of divorce. When this article was written in 2005, the bride price went so high, until $50,000. So the higher the education was, the higher the bride price was as well. Female medical doctors cost ten thousand of dollars to husbands. Ironically, one can understand why men were afraid to get married to highly educated women.


Why do Hmong people want to keep the bride price?
One of the major reasons stated by the Hmong people focused on the necessity to keep the bride price because it is tied to several cultural practices such as the marriage or the funeral. Otherwise, not keeping it would lead to the loss, disintegration or incoherence in cultural pratices. So conserving the bride price would preserve the Hmong culture. Though, according to some feminist views, would it be worthy to preserve the practices that do not allow half of its members (women) to have equal rights, so to be always depending on the decisions of the fathers, brothers of husbands.
There is no doubt that Hmong people would need to preserve their culture, but the Hmong of the Diaspora would need to adapt their practices to their new country of adoption, the US or elsewhere. Slowly, but surely, the Hmong culture is changing. Instead of perceiving a culture as a rigid thing, invented once forever, Hmong people would need to recognize their culture as a product of several encounterings, of borrowing, and of adaptation.
For the transmission of their core of (good) values carried by the cultural practices, there would need to engage more critical approaches to reexamine their importance in the preservation of the Hmong cultural heritage. Living in democratic countries where gender equal rights form the foundation of a modern society, the whole Hmong community has to re-question the soundness, suitability, and rightness of the “bride price” through its marriage practices. If women were still considered as citizens of second zone and minors in any decision making processes or in professional career growth, they wouldn’t be able to contribute to the well-being of the Hmong community: As mothers, wives and professionals, they are also keypersons to the economic and sociocultural development and advancement for the good of the Hmong communities.

If one observes the adapting skills between genders, there is a reversal of the social roles: Hmong women are certainly better prepared to meet the challenges of a post-modern society. Their traditional education and personality shaping where they learn at a young age, flexibility, adaptability, versatility, submission, discipline, hardwork -- that are destined to make them survive in a new lineage when being given away as brides-- has become their fundamental strenght. The Hmong form of feminine sociability reveals efficient, capable to propel women to live fully their lives with professional careers as much as Hmong men with their masculine sociability (creativity, leadership, free-spirit, ...). Hmong women can provide to their families as men do in addition to perpetuate and renovate the Hmong culture, and language. In that case, is there still need to have a bride price to safegard women's safety? Any way, women are not playing any more minor roles in the families in the diasporic context.

Feminist Perspective
Until now, to understand the notion of bride pride, two perspectives drawn from the Hmong representation and the anthropological theoretical framework, have been used to analyze it. However, in order to have a comprehensive view from diverse ideological trends, one also needs to take in account women's perspectives, especially the feminist view even if these various points of view may not be reconcilable. The relevance of such a critique on the Hmong bride price is due to the recognition of the existence of a plurality of thought on the bride price that doesn't converge to a same understanding and acceptance because the ethnic group is fragmented in sub-groups sharing divergent ideologies, lifestyles, or beliefs. 
Effectively, from the feminist point of view, the bride price questions the humanity of both genders. Should one believe that there would be only one dominating gender over the other? Otherwise, the “second sex”, concept invented by Simone de Beauvoir to call the female gender, would be reduced to an object of pleasure, an erotico-non subject, lacking desire, or will.  In simple term, women would need society control and protection.

[…] “Anatomic destiny’ is thus profoundly different in man and woman, and no less different is their moral and social situation. Patriarchal civilization dedicated woman to chastity; it recognized more or less openly the right of the male to sexual freedom, while woman was restricted to marriage. The sexual act, if not sanctified by the code, by a sacrament, is for her a fault, a fall, a defeat, a weakness; she should defend her virtue, her honor; if she ‘yields’, if she ‘falls’, she is scorned; whereas any blame visited upon her conqueror is mixed with admiration. From primitive times to our own, intercourse has always been considered a “service” for which the male thanks the women by giving her presents or assuring her maintenance; but to serve is to give oneself a master; there is no reciprocity in this relation. The nature of marriage, as well as the existence of prostitutes, is the proof: woman gives herself, man pays her and takes her. Nothing forbids the male to act the master, to take inferior creatures." […] Simone de B, “The Second Sex”, Vintage Books Ed., p. 374

Women have humanity, and it is also equal to men’s humanity: women are subjects --not objects or merchandises reimbursable in a differed system of social exchange. The practice of the bride price in Hmong weddings in post-modern societies, openly demonstrates that women would be assimilated to merchandises that men could exchange with other merchandises.
In this modern settings where women are as educated as men, the bride price clearly emphasizes the idea that men would continue to perceive women as eternal minors, incapable of decision and of desire, dangerous with their sexuality.

Living in societies where there is law to protect sexism, gender discrimination, why do women still need protection from fathers, brothers, or husbands? Should grooms pay such high prices for highly educated brides? Of course, Hmong people need to preserve their culture, but also need to adapt.


Edited in June 2018

Keywords:
Bride price
Bride wealth
Cultural reproduction
Dowry
Feminism
Gender equality
Male domination
Marriage
Notion of person,
Patriarchal society
Social change
Social control
Social exchange
Transmission
Value
Wedding
Women