When Sia Her spoke out about domestic abuse and sexual assault in the Hmong community two years ago, she faced instant backlash. One voice-mail message called her a “traitor to her people.”
Hmong women’s advocates like Her publicly tackled issues of sexual misconduct long before the national MeToo conversation gained traction last fall. But they say the movement has lent new momentum to their cause.
Her says the timing is right for her proposal for a $500,000 state domestic violence and sexual assault prevention fund.
But the movement — with its largely white and famous spokeswomen — hasn’t resonated with every one in Minnesota’s immigrant communities.
Women in the Hmong, Somali and other local groups face the added burden of inviting charges that they’re discrediting their communities at a time of heightened scrutiny of immigrants. Others haven’t felt included in the broader conversation.
“Mainstream America is afraid of tackling these issues within cultural communities,” said Her, head of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. “They are afraid of being accused of cultural insensitivity … of being racist.”
Widening the conversation
Back in 2016, a vocal group of Hmong women and men were taking on a wrenching issue: Local men traveled to impoverished villages in Laos and returned with brides decades their junior — relationships advocates say breed abuse toward both the new arrivals and abandoned first wives.
To Her, these marriages and other abuse were symptoms of a traditionally patriarchal community coming to terms with more women like her: with a master’s degree and with male elders flocking to her office near the Capitol for advice. Still, she says, the weeks after she appeared in news reports about the international marriages were tense. She received threatening e-mails and calls. A Hmong broadcaster suggested she must just really hate Hmong men.
Now, Her and others feel the MeToo movement has helped reinvigorate and widen the conversation.
More young people and men are talking about violence against women, says Bo Thao-Urabe of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders. Some have embraced the Hmong version of the MeToo hashtag, #kuvthiab, including celebrities such as singer Pagnia Xiong, who told of an elder pressing himself against her at a Hmong New Year’s celebration.
Joua Lee Grande, a young member of Thao-Urabe’s coalition, devoured coverage of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In the accounts of glamorous actresses, she saw a familiar instinct to minimize these experiences and focus on how women bring harassment upon themselves. She used the MeToo hashtag to share an incident she had rarely discussed.
After a high school dance, a friend offered her a ride home but drove her instead to a deserted park. She felt cornered as he pressed her to be his girlfriend, telling her he couldn’t “go back to the guys empty-handed.” Mutual friends dismissed the encounter and stayed silent when the same friend bragged about beating his sister because it was his role as a Hmong man to discipline female relatives.
“I could now say, ‘Guess what? That incident that so many people shrugged off has so many echoes to what’s in the news,’ ” she said.
But others say MeToo hasn’t engaged many women in immigrant communities. Thao-Urabe says their stories are often dismissed: They might not speak English. They are told they should have known the laws of this country. They work low-paying jobs outside the public spotlight.
Cawo Abdi, a Somali-American professor at the University of Minnesota, says young people in the Somali community are tuning in to the MeToo conversation without joining in. They still face a taboo against discussing sex and sexual abuse. She points to last month’s conviction of a Somali elder in Oregon after several teenage girls told police he molested them. Amid intense community pressure, only one stuck with her story, even as she said her parents had banished her.
Abdi says the imperative to shield the community is stronger at a time of anti-Muslim rhetoric: “The more the community feels under siege, the more insular it becomes.”
Ivette Izea-Martinez at St. Paul-based Casa de Esperanza, a domestic violence prevention nonprofit, says her social media network has lit up with MeToo stories, undermining the narrative of harassment as an inevitable, innocuous byproduct of macho culture. But she says the movement still seems to shy away from the messier questions of how class and immigration status can muzzle women. And the conversations have not yielded more tangible changes, such as an uptick in women seeking out her nonprofit’s services.
“It’s great #MeToo is trending, but now what?” she said.
Since 2016, Her and others have gotten lawmakers to fund a study of abuse against Asian Minnesotans, which found that only about 10 percent report domestic and sexual violence because they feel it’s not “that bad” or fear being branded a bad wife. Legislators also funded a pilot project to subsidize rent for immigrant women leaving abusive relationships, with the nonprofit Hmong American Partnership slated to offer the first vouchers this spring.
Last year, Her conceived a proposal for a new fund, one that would give competitive grants to programs to prevent domestic violence, sexual assault and other abuse, with a priority on underserved communities. Then, MeToo grabbed the headlines: “It’s almost as if someone has made the case for us, and we’re stepping forward,” she said.
In meetings with Her this month, some lawmakers questioned a $15 surcharge to the state marriage license fee to pay for the fund, modeled on initiatives several states have adopted. Still, Her enlisted Republicans to carry the bill, with bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, the question of how to keep the MeToo momentum preoccupies Her and others. Some argue the male-dominated Hmong 18 Council, which works to resolve family and other conflicts, could take a more vocal stance. The group has never fielded a sexual misconduct complaint, says spokesman Snowdon Herr.
“There are still pockets in the community where it’s still incredibly difficult to stand up and talk about these issues,” Sia Her said. “But we have come a long way.”