Gender and Religion

Hmong ideas about the supernatural represent the confluence of many religious traditions. Some individuals and families claim to practice just one religion, while others conduct ceremonies to solicit help from ancestral and domestic spirits (ua coj dab), participate in Buddhist rituals, and worship as Christians depending upon the circumstances. A woman is generally expected to follow the religious practices of her husband's family and lineage. However, men have given up ua coj dab and joined the Christian churches of their in-laws.

Hmong who ua coj dab divide reality into yaj ceeb, the normally visible and material domain, and yeeb ceeb, the spirit realm. The latter is also called dab teb, a world where tame spirits (dab nyeg) protect the house and garden, while dangerous wild spirits (dab qus) menace from beyond the pale of human settlement. Hmong also recognize a supremely powerful spirit for whom they have several names. All entities, both human and nonhuman, have spirits called ntsuj plig. After a person dies, his or her ntsuj plig is said to travel back to the village of the ancestors. Hmong also talk about a deceased's spirit being reincarnated and remaining at the place of interment, but this does not ordinarily occur within the same discourse.

Hmong say that the span of life is "inscribed" before birth, but do not see it as absolutely fixed. Life can sometimes be extended with the help of txiv neeb, who are mostly males (txiv) who work with spirit familiars (neeb) to keep ntuj plig from leaving the bodies of ailing clients. Txiv neeb also treat individuals when the ntuj plig either flees the body due to a traumatic experience or is captured by wild spirits, the dab qus (see Lee [1995] and Lemoine [1996] on Hmong spiritual beliefs and practices).

The cosmology of those who ua coj dab reflects the patrilineal descent system and family-oriented structure of Hmong society. Like Hmong Christians, they refer to the greatest supernatural being as a male, but one who has a wife. They are the Guardian Couple, Nkauj Niam Txiv Kab Yeeb, who bring children to their earthly parents and protect them throughout their lives. Ntxwg Nyug is an imposing and frightening male spirit who, from the highest mountain top in the spirit world, sends illness and death to the living when their allotted time has expired. With the help of Nyuj Vag Tuav Teem, his assistant, Ntxwg Nyug examines how each dead person treated others during his or her earthly existence, and determines what material form the ntsuj plig will join in the next life, and for how long. Several ranks down from these top male spirits is the female Njauj Iab who, before allowing the dead to pass into the spirit world so that they can be reincarnated, cleanses them of all memories with pure water. The rarity of important female spirits is paralleled by absence of woman from the performance of dab qhuas, rituals that express the unique identities of patrilineal kin groups. Women are rarely txiv neeb, and only a small number have become marriage negotiators (mej koob). Similarly for Christian Hmong, relatively few women are pastors, choir members, or church soloists.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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