Senior Fellow Keo Xiong Studying Hmong-American Feminism
As Hamilton’s only Senior Fellow in the class of 2012, Keomanisod Xiong ’12 will spend this academic year researching efforts toward gender equity in the Hmong-American community. She will complete a project titled “Hmoob-Meskas: Two Clashing Perspectives on Gender and the Implications of a Hmong Feminism in a Hmong-American Community,” with the help of advisors Anne Lacsamana, associate professor of women’s studies, and Bonnie Urciuoli, professor of anthropology.
Xiong, born and raised in a Hmong community in Minnesota, noticed the scarcity of literature on the Hmong people early in life. One of her high school history teachers told students not to attempt to write papers on the Hmong because they would not be able to find reliable sources to cite. Within the Hmong studies that do exist, Xiong says, issues of gender and women’s roles are pushed to the periphery.
Her Senior Fellowship will allow Xiong to pursue her own research on the Hmong in America. Senior Fellowships provide a unique opportunity to Hamilton students to carry out intensive independent study without the weight of a normal course load or concentration requirements. This fall, Xiong is taking Women’s Studies 402: Global Feminisms, to supplement her understanding of women’s movements and will spend the rest of her time researching the history of the Hmong people. Over winter break she will conduct interviews and attend lectures for her case study, which will examine a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Hmong women. She will analyze her data and present the project in the spring.
The hierarchical structure of Hmong-American communities has disadvantaged women within them, Xiong reports. Forced marriages, early motherhood, and domestic violence go unnoticed by the legal system. The hierarchy that placed women within the home and below men in their former agrarian society remains, but Hmong women in America are also expected to work outside the home. Many of these women have found extraordinary success in their careers and do so at higher rates than Hmong men, yet they still achieve little visibility within their families. “Despite all the struggles they go through, they are leading the Hmong community,” Xiong says. Now many of these women seek to address sexism in the community. Xiong will explore and define their efforts in her project.
Xiong worked with Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together, an organization in Saint Paul devoted to the empowerment of Hmong women, this past summer. HWAT began as a forum for women to talk about their issues, a big step for members of a clan-based culture. “It’s rare to have friends outside the family,” Xiong says, so their organization was unusual. As the first ever intern for HWAT, Xiong performed significant PR work for the organization, which is still seen as taboo and radical among many Hmong. She also networked with Hmong women and helped document the history of the organization, a task that helped prepare her for this year’s research.
When Xiong initially ventured away from the Hmong community in which she grew up, she did not necessarily expect to work with it in the future. Now she believes her work with Hmong women will continue into the future. “Being away has drawn me back to the community,” Xiong says.
After graduation, Xiong hopes to achieve a grant to study Hmong gender relations in other countries. Since the Hmong faced persecution in Laos after the Vietnam War, in which they fought on the side of the United States, many came to live in the United States, but large populations also went to Thailand, Australia, France and French Guiana. Xiong sees an opportunity for further research on how gender ideology and Hmong women’s situations have developed in those communities.
Xiong is a graduate of Harding Senior High School in St. Paul, Minn.