Nujood Ali: The Heroine of Brides

Translation by Amira Nagy

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She is a true heroine and inspiration to girls and women in her country. Nujood, a ten-year-old, is the youngest divorcee in Yemen and perhaps in the world.

At a first glance it is hard to believe that Nujood Mohamed Ali is the most famous divorced woman in Yemen: a slender girl with a bashful smile from her coffee brown eyes. When asked what makes her smile she says: “Tom & Jerry cartoons”. And what else? “My divorce”, she says.

Even after all she’s been through, Nujood is a girl of ten years, who loves to play with dolls and with her sister Haifa. Nevertheless Nujood became Yemen’s first child bride, who succeeded in having her marriage ended at court. “I wanted to protect myself”, she says, “and other girls in the same situation like me”.

There are countless child brides in Yemen. About half the number of girls that are married off are under 18, while the youngest of them are barely eight years old. Nujood’s 18-year-old neighbour, for example, was married off at 13 and is now a mother of four. As one of her children starts crying, she slaps it. “I was forced into marriage when I was very young”, she explains. “I don’t have the time to be a kind mother”.

Girl marriage, as practised in South Asia, Central Africa, and in the Middle East, is not just dangerous for the brides but also for their children. Before her forced marriage, Nujood loved going to school and she especially liked mathematics and the Qur’anic school. She extracted a promise from her father not to withdraw her from school to marry her off, but when she reached the age of nine, her parents chose a husband for her. At first her shock was mitigated by the many wedding gifts: perfume, two hairbrushes, and two hijabs. Her bridegroom, a postman aged 30, gave her a $20 wedding ring. He would ask for it back soon after though, to purchase clothes for himself.

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While telling her story Nujood sits on a worn out mattress, in one of the two rooms her family of nine shares. It is almost midnight, but Nujood’s nine-year-old sister Haifa is still out selling chewing gum in the streets of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Their father, Ali Mohamed Ahdal, has worked as a street cleaner in the past. At present, with 16 children and two wives, he has no job.

The average Yemeni earns only $900 per year. To many fathers, having their daughters married means to have at least one mouth less to feed. Moreover, it is also about preserving the family’s honour. One of Nujood’s sisters had been raped and another had been kidnapped. When their father heard that the kidnapper had laid eyes on Nujood as well, he thought that a marriage would protect her. The contrary was the case.

Nujood was battered by her in-laws, and the nights were made up of a terrible version of playing “catch”: the nine-year-old running from room to room to escape her husband, who would rape her. She pleaded for help from her family: “I was sad and angry”, her mother says, “but I still thought that marriage was the best thing for her”. Only her “aunt”, her father’s second wife, who lives in the second room - poverty-stricken with her five children - advised her to go to court.

At this point Nujood did something women in Yemen normally don’t do. She left the house alone. Then she went to court using a public bus and a taxi. She waited the whole morning until a judge noticed her. “I want a divorce”, Nujood told him. Soon after, Shada Nasser heard of the bold little girl. “At first I couldn’t believe it”, the lawyer says. She asked Nujood why she wants a divorce. She answered, “I hate the nights”. Nasser agreed to take the case pro bono.

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Nujood’s case is not Nasser’s first to create excitement in public. When the 44-year-old woman opened a lawyer’s office in the 90s, it was the first to be run by a woman. She offered her help for free to women who were jailed for so-called honour crimes: “Women don’t have many rights in Yemen, and they don’t know about them either”.

Law allows for arranged marriages of girls at any age. Intercourse is prohibited though, until a girl reaches sexual maturity. In court Shada Nasser pleaded that Nujood’s marriage was against the law, since she has been raped by her husband. The judge asked Nujood whether she wanted to continue her marriage after a break of three to five years, which the girl firmly rejected. “I hate this man and I hate this marriage. Let me live my life and go to school”, she answered.

A week after Nujood’s trial, in April 2008, the judge passed a historic verdict: he permitted a divorce. Nujood’s story went around the world and it has reached other child brides in Yemen. Three of them have filed for divorce since.

After having divorced, Nujood says, her life is sweet as candy. In the autumn she was back at school again for the first time in her new uniform, a bottle-green dress and a white hijab. She has already picked a career too. She wants to become a lawyer.


Original article published in Emma, January 2009: https://www.emma.de/artikel/nujood-ali-heldin-der-braeute-263908

From Women in Islam Issue 1, 2014