FRESNO, Calif. – In a crowded refugee camp in Thailand, Misty Her often sneaked away to a school house and listened through a hole in the wall. She knew she could never attend, being Hmong and a girl.
For centuries, the Hmong — an ethnic minority group clustered in Asia's mountain villages — held to a rigid division in gender roles. Boys were revered and nurtured. Girls were men's property, to be married off for a dowry, forbidden to study or work.
Even in California's Central Valley, where Her's family and other Hmong refugees fled en masse after fighting in America's secret war in Laos, rigid roles endured. But Her would help break that mold.
Now 36, she overcame resistance, got a college degree and climbed the career ladder. She became an assistant superintendent with the Fresno Unified School District this school year.
Hmong community members say many women are now challenging old norms, delaying marriage and having fewer children. They're becoming lawyers, doctors and journalists.
"Today, more Hmong girls are going to college and taking jobs. It's a huge stepping stone for us," Her said. "It's also a challenge: being young, single, but doing it in a way that you're still respected."
The new roles for women are also causing friction in families. Elders say the shift is upsetting to men who feel they are losing control of their households, and it is creating a rift between many young and older Hmong. Others fear Hmong women are forsaking their cultural identity.
The Hmong have fought off change for centuries. Persecuted and pressured to assimilate by Chinese, Lao and others, they farmed rice and opium at high elevations, keeping traditions isolated and intact.
After the CIA trained a secret guerilla army of Hmong soldiers to fight North Vietnamese troops, the Hmong were forced out of seclusion and into refugee camps. Since the mid-1970s, they poured into California and other states. Approximately 32,000 Hmong live in Fresno County, according to census figures, one of largest concentrations of the 260,000 Hmong in the U.S.
In the U.S., daughters were still expected to marry in their early teens, have up to 8 or 9 children and serve their husbands' families. They were not allowed to eat at the same table as men.
"You shall not get pregnant out of wedlock, shame the family, speak back; you must obey your in-laws and your husband. The cultural norms are still very much there," said Maiya Yang, 43, a Hmong attorney with the Fresno County Office of Education.
Her, who came to the U.S. as a five-year-old, delayed marriage until after high school and got accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles. When her parents forbade her from moving, she instead attended Fresno State, becoming a teacher, then a principal.
When she was promoted to assistant superintendent last July, Her's father was upset and cried. "Things would be so different if you were a boy," he told his daughter.
Her's husband Phong Yang was supportive, which prompted some backlash.
"People told me, 'You have to be careful, she will be working with lots of men and going to different places without supervision,' " said Yang, who teaches Hmong at Fresno State.
He could not block opportunities for his wife, he said, because all Hmong came to the U.S. to succeed. "You can only complain so much, eventually your wife will say, 'you're holding me back,'" Yang said.
Other Hmong women said they struggle daily to win over their families.
"I had to put up a fight to get to where I am," said Vicky Xiong, 39, a second grade teacher in the Clovis Unified School District, who got married at 16. "There's pressure from my husband and family who just want me home. But I push back."
Xiong helped start a soccer team for Hmong women in Fresno, breaking a cultural taboo against women playing sports.
Hmong women are also now playing the qeej, a sacred instrument reserved for men, said elder Bee Yang, who teaches a course on Hmong weddings and funerals. But he said the women are still unable to lead such ceremonies.
"There will come a point when it will have to be accepted," he said. "But for now, they can't practice, because it would be considered shameful."
At Hmong events, Her, who took Hmong classes in college, introduces herself in the traditional way, as "Phong's wife" — or, literally, "Phong's property" — because it shows respect to her husband. She has come to accept, she said, that in the community her place will never be as high as a man's.
"I struggled with being a Hmong American," said Her, who usually dresses in suits and high heels to go to work. "You're always tugging, do I go to this side or that? How do I make it fit, so at the end of the day I can still live with myself?"
Many Hmong men have also struggled to adjust.
"In Laos, whatever the man says goes. In this country, all of a sudden the tables have turned," Paly Yang, Her's father-in-law, said through a translator. "It's like a storm that's raging all the time and the men have to find the calmness within it."
Paly Yang said he has come to accept the change. But other men have not fared so well, he said, growing depressed, withdrawn or angry.
A clan leader, Wa Tu Xiong, said changes in Hmong-American society also have negatively affected the women.
"Because they don't remember who they are, there are more divorces, some women are drug addicts, they smoke and drink," he said.
Parents also worry that young Hmong women no longer value their culture, with some girls denying being Hmong and even dying their hair blond.
Many girls have already lost interest in the art of needlework, known as Paj ntaub, which conveys Hmong history and daily life through intricate pictorial embroideries on cloth.
So Vicky Xiong teaches embroidery to her 12-year-old daughter Rachel Lor, who plans to become a fashion designer someday.
"The hope," said Xiong, "is that our girls can realize that you can be successful and still be Hmong."