By Esmerelda Weatherwax
I Am Nujood, aged 10 and Divorced
By Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui
Three Rivers Press 2010
This book is not yet published in Great Britain; I bought a copy from the US through Amazon. It is Nujood’s story in the first person taken down originally in French by Delphine Minoui of Beiruit, who wrote further material in between. It was translated into English by Linda Coverdale.
Nujood Ali came to the attention of the world in 2008 at the age of 10 when she entered the Courthouse in Saana the capital of Yemen and kept asking to see a judge. She was shown to a courtroom and sat to wait her turn. Eventually she was the last person present and the man ‘with a curiously gentle voice’ asked,
“And what can I do for you?”
This time I answer promptly. “I want a divorce.”
The book starts with this request and tells the story of how she got that divorce and how she was married to a man three times her age from their home village who offered to take her off her father’s hands.
Nujood is one of the 16 children born just outside the remote village of Khardji to her father’s first wife. Nujood has no birth certificate and her mother cannot remember her date of birth. At the time she begins her story she thinks she is aged 10. Her father’s second wife, who Nujood calls Aunt Dowla, has five children. Her father, when not breeding children seemed to spend most of his time in bed or squatting in the street while chewing the narcotic khat, happy for his wives and children to go out to beg for their food, or sell almost all their meagre possessions.
Her early descriptions of life in the village sound happy, despite the poverty, and she has an eye for natural beauty, taking delight in the rays of the sun breaking through rain clouds and the smell of home baked bread and local honey.
One day the family had to leave Khardji for Sana’a, the capital. Later Nujood found out that her older sister Jamila was raped by the husband of another sister, Mona, who was married at age 13 after being raped by him first. Jamila ended up in prison for adultery, her husband also vanished and Mona’s mother-in-law snatched her babies. The neighbours ordered them out of the village at gunpoint. Perhaps because she was deprived of her own children, Mona took Nujood under her wing, as did Auntie Dowla. Nujood attended school for a while and loved it. She learnt the Quran and the five pillars of Islam, how to write her name and how to count up to 100.
Then she overheard the following conversation.
“Nujood is way too young to get married,” Mona insisted.
“Too young? When the prophet Mohammed wed Aisha, she was only 9 years old,” replied Aba
“. . . Listen, this marriage, it’s the best way to protect her . . . She will be spared the same problems you and Jamila had. . . she won’t be raped by a stranger and become the prey of evil rumours. This man seems honest . . . known in the neighbourhood . . . comes from our village. And he has promised not to touch Nujood until she is older.
Besides you know we haven’t enough money to feed the whole family. So this will mean one less mouth.”
Her husband’s family demanded that she leave school and she was married within two weeks. Her father was paid 150,000 Rials or $750. Her wedding dress was an old tunic that had once belonged to her new sister-in-law and as she left her home, her mother handed her a black Niqab.
“From this day on you must cover yourself when going out into the street. You are now a married woman. Your face must be seen by no one but your husband. . . his Sharaf, honour is at stake. And you must not disgrace it.”
All the way in the back of a hired car to Khardji she fought back vomiting from under the Niqab. On arrival she met her mother-in-law.
“As of tomorrow I’m going to teach the child to work like the rest of us. And I certainly hope she has brought some money with her. . . We’ll show her how to be a woman.”
And then her husband broke his promise to her father.
“Ya beint! Hey girl!” That’s what he would yell before throwing himself on me. He never said my first name. It was on the third day that he began hitting me. . . She would tell him hoarsely “Hit her even harder. She must listen to you – she’s your wife.”
She persuaded her husband to return to Sana’a to visit her family. Her father forbad her to leave her husband and her mother could not or would not assist. But Auntie Dowla was made of different stuff. She told Nujood that she needed to see a Judge and gave her 200 rials, the result of a whole morning begging at the intersection. Then next morning her mother gave her 150 rials to buy the breakfast bread. Anonymous under the hated niqab, that sum was sufficient to pay for a taxi to “The Courthouse”.
We know from the title that Nujood got her divorce, although not that day. The first judge called three brother Judges. I am used to a court system with family liaison officers, court welfare officers, child protection units although even with all that too many children die because the bosom of their family is not a safe place.
In Yemen there are no such things. The three Yemeni Judges were, to their credit, aghast that she was married and the marriage consummated so young. The age should be 15, despite the Yemeni proverb, ‘to guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine year old girl’. She could not be sent back to her parents so Judge Abdel Wahed took her into his own home where, holding a doll belonging to his daughter, she began to tell him and his wife her story.
News got round of the little girl in court, demanding a divorce. Shada Nasser a women’s rights lawyer took up her case. There were further hearings with lies told in evidence by her husband. Eventually Nujood got her divorce and a chocolate cake to celebrate, but there isn’t a happy ending yet.
Money earned from the sale of this book and from Glamour magazine has been placed in a trust fund for Nujood. She returned to a new school with joy but that first place wasn’t a success. She fasted for Ramadan as an adult for the first time and found a second school where she and her younger sister are finally learning to read and write. She wants to be a lawyer like Shada to defend other girls and campaign for the age for marriage to be raised higher. Maybe to as high as 22. She vows to wear high heels and never wear a niqab again.
“Marriage was invented to make girls miserable. I will never get married again, not ever again”.
Her headmistress had stories to tell of other pupils who left aged 13 and were married with a baby within the year. Two other girls, Arwa and Rym, aged 9 and 12 respectively heard of what Nujood did and applied for their own divorces. Her younger sister is safe at the moment from a young marriage. The age of marriage was raised in Yemen to 17, then after opposition, this law was repealed as unislamic and sent back for reconsideration. Women (and I hazard a guess that Nujood’s ex mother-in-law is such a one) object as it is contrary to what their beloved Mohammed did. And as they suffered so why shouldn’t the next generation suffer also?
On the down side her brothers resent the attention their sister receives. Neither they nor the father will work and their mother is in poor health. Nujood, Shada and other campaigners have been accused of showing Yemen in a poor light. Some regard her rebellion as meriting an honour murder. But the last paragraph describes her working on a picture of a house.
“It’s the house of joy. The house of happy little girls.”
I hope she gets her wish to study and qualify, and if she does marry, that it be to a supportive man of her own choice and love. I look forward in years to come to a book in her own hand about how she found the courage to break the mould and ask for a divorce when the only options open to so many girls in her position is to become cruel herself like her mother-in-law, submissive like her own mother or attempt suicide like Rym.
What inspired Auntie Dowla to be kind and generous despite her own suffering and Nujood to be so resourceful as to grab the opportunity that a taxi fare offered? Nujood is showing similar generosity in wanting some of her trust fund to benefit other girls as well as provide for the rest of her family. Her brothers need never look for a day’s work again! Perhaps her appreciation of her surroundings was another example of how she is, as Judge Abdel Wahed said, an exceptional girl.
It isn’t a long book and it is very simply written, but not in a childish way. Either Nujood is old beyond her years or the adult’s voices have crept in, although not in an obtrusive manner. I would recommend it for teenagers to study in PSHE (Physical, Social and Health Education)
This is a report on Southern California Public Radio.
Rashida al-Hamdani heads a government organization for the advancement of women. She says the custom of child marriage is not new in this region. What's new is the way it is practiced.
"All our mothers got married at the age of 13, 12, 11. The men usually were [a] similar age ... and [the girl] was mostly living [with] the families. So they were taking care of her, and she was not to be touched until maturation. It's different now," Hamdani says.
In other words, the larger extended family made sure the young man waited to consummate the marriage at least until his wife had reached puberty. But now, that tribal culture is breaking down, and nuclear families live apart from the larger group.
And because Yemen is increasingly overpopulated and impoverished, many families see marrying their young daughters and receiving dowries as a way to survive.
"Some families are getting rid of their girls because of poverty. Some of them are selling their children, and some of them are -- they think it's what you call sitr istr bintak, which means you have to cover the girl, put her in a place where she will be protected."
Since the book was published more cases of child marriage have reached the news.
17th March 2010
A 12-year-old Yemeni child bride died after struggling to give birth for three days, a local human rights organisation said. Fawziya Abdullah Youssef died of severe bleeding on Friday while giving birth to a stillborn in the al-Zahra district hospital of Hodeida province, 140 miles west of the capital Sanaa.
Youssef was only 11 when her father married her to a 24-year-old man who works as a farmer in Saudi Arabia, said Ahmed al-Quraishi, chairman of Siyaj human rights organization.
28 March 2010
SANAA - Throngs of journalists pushed forward to get a picture of 12-year-old Sally al-Sabahi as she signed her divorce papers in the Yemeni capital on 27 March. As she dipped her thumb in dark ink and pressed it next to her name on an official document, she became Yemen’s fourth child bride divorcee.
April 8th 2010
SAN'A, Yemen – A 13-year-old Yemeni girl has died of injuries to her genitals four days after a family-arranged marriage, a human rights group said. The 13-year-old girl from Hajja province, northwest of the capital, died on April 2, four days after her marriage to a 23-year-old man, said Majed al-Madhaji, a spokesman for the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights. A medical report from al-Thawra hospital said she suffered a tear to her genitals and severe bleeding.
An Uzbek gynaecologist at a medical clinic, Zahra Makyayeva, said she saw Ashi on the second day of her marriage, after her husband brought her in asking to "tear her hymen" -- proving that they had not consummated their marriage. The doctor said she refused because "it was forbidden" and advised the husband to go to a government hospital, pointing out that the girl, who was too shy to allow the doctor to check her, appeared frail.
But instead of going to a hospital, Hekmi stopped at the clinic's pharmacy asking for sleeping pills or tranquilisers, but when he failed to obtain such pills, he asked for a sexual performance enhancer, which he got.
"We realised he wanted to drug the girl," said Sheikh Ali al-Huda, the owner of the clinic.
Three days later, Hekmi took his wife back to the clinic, where she was diagnosed with urine retention and found to have vaginal injuries and infection, according to nurse Fathiya Haidar. "We gave her medication and she left. The morning after we heard she died," she said.
April 13th 2010
An 11-year-old Yemeni girl who was was married to a man in country's Hajja province was hospitalized today with genital injuries, said a human rights group in Sanaa. The 11-year-old girl was married last year only under the condition that the adult husband would wait until she reached puberty to consummate the marriage. He did not wait, nor do many of the men who marry young brides, says Amal Basha, director of the Arabic Sisters Forum.
23 April 2010, this time in nearby Saudi Arabia
A girl aged 12 has won a divorce from her 80-year-old husband in Saudi Arabia in a case that may help to introduce a minimum age of marriage in the kingdom for the first time. The girl’s unusual legal challenge to the arrangement generated international media attention and scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s record of child marriages.
It also prompted the state-run Human Rights Commission to appoint a lawyer to represent her. The commission has capitalised on the case and pushed for a legal minimum age for marriage of at least 16.
These cases do not mention whether FGM has been a factor, but these girls are so young (and small) that it is not bound to be. It is banned in Yemen but still widespread in certain regions, mostly on the coast, less so in the mountains. When it is done it is usually within the first few weeks of age, unlike elsewhere.
BUT, if Yemen is really becoming the ‘next Afghanistan’ all this work could go backwards.