Tuesday, Feb. 03, 2009
In a dimly lit corner of a Paris bar a delighted young divorcée describes in a soft voice how she spent the day throwing snowballs for the first time in her life. That is not remarkable. This is: Nujood Ali is just 10 years old — and was, until recently, the youngest known divorced person in the world.
Slender with thick hair and a shy smile, Ali made headlines in Yemen last April when she walked out on a man more than three times her age, to whom her father had married her off. It was an act driven by terror and despair.
Nujood's ordeal began last February, when the family gathered to celebrate her wedding to a motorcycle deliveryman in his 30s. She first set eyes on the groom when she took her marriage vows. After spending her wedding night with her parents and 15 brothers and sisters, Nujood was taken by her new husband to his family village, where, she says, he beat and raped her every night. After two nightmarish months he allowed her to visit her parents, who rebuffed her pleas to end the marriage.
Nujood finally found her moment to escape one day, when her mother gave her a few pennies and sent her out to buy bread. Instead she took a bus to the center of the capital, Sanaa — a city of 3 million people — where she hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to the courthouse. She had never been inside a courtroom but had once seen one on television, she says, and knew it was a place where people went for help. There she sat silently on a bench, uncertain as to what to do, while crowds of people scurried past, scarcely glancing at the quiet child. It was only once the courthouse emptied during the lunch recess that the judge noticed her and asked why she was there. "I came for a divorce," she told him. Horrified, he took her to his house to play with his 8-year-old daughter, and granted the divorce two days later.
Nujood's story might have ended there, had it not caught the attention of reporters from Sanaa's newspapers, then of journalists from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Last November, New York City–based Glamour magazine gave Nujood its Woman of the Year award in a splashy Manhattan ceremony with fellow honorees that included Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. Now Delphine Minoui, a French reporter for Le Figaro, has ghostwritten Nujood's autobiography.
Asked how she spent her week in Paris, Nujood's eyes widen as she says, "I saw the Eiffel Tower; I saw the Seine." Shaken by the testimony of violence during her divorce trial, Yemen's lawmakers raised the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18. Two other girls in Sanaa — one age 9, the other 12 — have since sued for divorce, while an 8-year-old in Saudi Arabia has won a divorce suit, apparently inspired by Nujood's tale. Nujood says she hopes to ignite a far broader movement of girls to quit their child marriages, adding, "They should not be scared of their fathers or their husbands."
That might be easier said than done, especially in cultures where a girl's honor is held as supremely important. Minoui, who has spent considerable time with Nujood, says the girl still risks attacks from male relatives who believe she has sullied the family's reputation. But her fame appears to have protected her from that possibility for now.
Nujood says she thinks only about learning now — hardly the typical response from a 10-year-old child. As though she has no time to lose, she cut short her stay in Paris this week — including canceling a press conference — saying she wanted to get back to school. She says she ultimately hopes to work for women's rights in Yemen; in Paris she discussed the problem of child marriage with France's Human Rights Minister, Rama Yada, and Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara. And Nujood says she has already chosen her future career: "I want be a lawyer."
Nujood's services would be welcome. Despite Yemen's laws against child marriage, about 52% of Yemen's girls marry before the age of 18, often as the second or third wives of far older men. Worldwide, child marriage has been slow to change, according to UNICEF's "State of the World's Children" report released last month. About 49% of South Asian women in their early 20s were married before the age of 18, according to statistics gathered by UNICEF, which links early marriage to high rates of infant death and maternal mortality in very poor countries. "Often families marry off girls very young because they want to protect them, not realizing the dangers they face," says Stella Schumacher, a UNICEF child-protection specialist in New York. "It requires a change of social norms. Legislation is not enough."
Laws were certainly not enough to win redress for Nujood. Although her father and ex-husband were arrested for arranging an underage marriage, both were released within 10 days. Nujood's father, an out-of-work laborer, told the judge he simply wanted to shield his daughter from possible violence on Sanaa's streets. Nujood's ex-husband slipped out of sight last summer as the media attention grew. A sympathetic friend reimbursed him for the dowry of about $250 that he had paid to Nujood's father. Asked by a reporter in Paris if she hopes to meet her Prince Charming one day, Nujood sat back in her chair, crossed her arms and said bluntly, "I no longer think about marriage."