CHIANG MAI, Thailand: Even when Ngamjit Thanomjitdee’s husband fired his gun to threaten her, she did not leave him. Even though she was being physically beaten by him on a daily basis, she stayed put.
The repercussions in her community of getting a divorce were worse than the abuse, she reasoned.
Ngamjit is an ethnic Hmong, living in the hills outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Just an hour’s drive from the modernity of urban life, women in Mae Sa Mai village are wrapped in the constraints of long held traditions centred around marriage. Here, behind the idyllic facade of rural life, hangs the persistent threat of violence, neglect and abandonment.
A group of self-empowered women, weary of being treated as inferior and in grief over the dislocation, suffering and suicides in the Hmong community, which has a population of about 150,000 in Thailand, has been pushing for change.
“When Hmong women are married, they move into the husbands’ houses. When their husbands beat them, torture them or use violence against them, they must tolerate it. When they come back to see their parents, the parents will tell them to go back,” said Naengnoi Sae-seng, a local villager and a member of the Hmong Women Network of Thailand.
“They see us as useless wives and useless daughters. I want to see Hmong women stand up and become the leaders of their clans, to be the leaders of their communities,” she said.
Since 2013, Naengnoi, 57, has assisted in the implementation of the Bring Daughter Home project, using Mae Sa Mai as a pilot village for the initiative. Its aim is to allow divorced women to return to their family home – a fundamental change in tradition.
In Hmong culture, women who divorce their husbands are all but mandated to become pariahs in the community. Their spirits are considered to be left in limbo and the women are not permitted to attend ceremonies or celebrations. They are considered bad omens who can bring great misfortune to their family.
“They believe that if the daughter comes back home chickens will die, pigs will die, horses will die and cows will die. They don’t know the cause but they think it is because of their daughter. This is what makes them unhappy,” said Yua Thanom-rungruang, a village consultant.
Some are not permitted to live inside the home of their parents or siblings and are left to dwell in separate small buildings. The women can be ignored or ostracised. The network has recorded seven suicides in the past three years of women who had reached out directly for marriage help.
“If we are very ill and too ill to go to hospital, they will leave us outside the house. If we die, they will leave our body outside the house without any ceremony and bury the bodies. The children of the daughters will face the same thing,” Naengnoi said.
In Hmong culture, immense value is placed on a person’s spirit, a belief tied to a person’s life and death. When a woman is married, her spirit is believed to separate from her family in order to join the clan of her husband. Not only is the woman herself now considered a possession of the man, her spirit too is bound to his. It has always been an irreversible ritual that occurred during marriage.
Naengnoi, herself a divorcee after being snatched to become a man’s second wife, researched a way to reintroduce lost sisters and daughters. She estimates there are about 100 exiled women from Mae Sa Mai and a neighbouring village, with a combined population of only 2600 people. Across the country the problem is widespread.
She says many women are known to have fled their Hmong heritage and moved to urban areas where risky jobs at karaoke bars are a common path. But her success in convincing Hmong elders to allow a unique “coming home” ceremony called Phu, means 13 women have been reintroduced to the Mae Sa Mai community this year alone.
“Imagine this, if your parents are having a new year ceremony and giving the blessing to every one of their children except you, what would you feel? You will feel sad because you aren’t included. You feel banished. This is what Hmong women feel.”
“I feel very depressed when I see women aren’t accepted back to their homes. It feels like my own suffering. If I was put into that situation, I would be so outraged but these women just cry,” she said.
The Phu ceremony involves a woman’s family – especially its male members – reaccepting her. But it remains controversial and many women remain outlaws in their own home. Patriarchal dominance means there are many families unwilling to embrace cultural change or any kind of redesign of womens’ traditional roles in Hmong society.
After suffering years of abuse Ngamjit Thanomjitdee finally made the decision to divorce her husband, a drug addict who is now in jail. The turning point came when, in front of her, he held a symbolic ceremony to burn her spirit.
“He burnt those papers as if I was a corpse. By burning them, it was like I am dead to him. Since I am dead, he and I should no longer be together,” she said.
Despite all she had endured, Ngamjit, a mother of four, was blamed by her family for the marriage failing. She has still not been accepted back by her father or brother, the decision makers in the family. She has been denied access to the Phu ceremony.
She lives in a dark annex attached to the side of her parents’ house. Inside, she sleeps in a tent to try to stay warm in the concrete shell. Her children are now in institutional care.
“My elder brother said that if I broke up with my husband and lived in his house, I would offend the spirits,” she said. “Just because I am here, I am already their burden. Living next to them, I already cause them discomfort. They only give me a temporary place to stay. I have to move out when I can find a new place.
“My mother told me to convert to Christianity. When something happens to me and nobody takes care of me, at least Christians will pray for me.”
For some women, like Ladda Yunegyongkeereemart, 42, ceremonial acceptance has brought more closure to a distressing part of her life. Like many Hmong women, education was denied to her and she was forced to marry young – at just 16.
“I was a mistress. I was forced. Back then, men could do the wife snatching. I was snatched,” she said “I did not want to get married but if I escaped and came back home, my reputation would be smeared. I did not love the man I married at all. I was very very sad.”
After her first husband died, she married into an abusive relationship, which almost saw her killed. She faced the shame of contending with another divorce. “People kept saying that I am a bad woman because I am divorced twice. Some people blamed me when their chickens died,” she said.
When she fell sick, the elders of the community were persuaded to re-admit Ladda back to her family so she could be looked after. “For me, coming home… I will have people to look after me and my spirit. My ancestor spirits will know that I am their descendant again. After the ceremony, I was over the moon. I cried,” she said.
While the Bring Daughter Home project has had some successes, it is a starting point in efforts to promote some form of gender equality. Men still dominate the community, and despite wider education opportunities, the role of women remains strictly defined.
Even among men who accept the Phu ceremony, there is little appetite for more equal rights for women, even those that are afforded to and expected by women in general Thai society.
“For Hmong people, if a woman does not listen to anyone, is very self-willed or does whatever she wants, Hmong will view her as worthless,” said Yua Thanom-rungruang, the village consultant and former deputy head.
“We believe they cannot be a leader. They have to listen to the husband all the time. In fact, for me, I think it is impossible to give women more rights than men.”
Naengnoi says progress gained momentum once the network began working more closely with men and conveying to them “womens’ suffering and pain”. Yet she still sees the younger generation facing the threat of domestic violence and social exclusion. An old Hmong saying that is taught to young boys still rings true in the community: “When chilli is hot, use salt. When the wife is stubborn, use your foot”.
A 20-year-old woman working in the village has fled her husband after he repeatedly beat her. But she still wants to return to him,
“He was doing the thing that Hmong men normally do. He still lives his life in the old traditional Hmong way,” she said. “I am considering going back. He beats me but he loves me. I want my daughter to have a full family.”
Naengnoi shakes her head as she listens to the woman speak. Gender roles are still deeply ingrained and her brand of feminism still meets resistance from all sides.
“Hmong women don’t love themselves and do things for themselves,” she said. It is disheartening sometimes. The biggest challenge is to change the mindset.”
She remains steadfast, dressed in a t-shirt with the slogan, “If women stop, the whole world stops”. It is clear that she does not intend to.
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat