Nujood Ali & Shada Nasser win “Women of the Year Fund 2008 Glamour Award” [Archives:2008/1207/Reportage]

November 13 2008

By: Carla Power
Glamour Magazine

Nov. 10 ) At first glance, you'd never guess that Nujood Mohammed Ali is Yemen's most famous divorcee. She is slight, with a shy smile and coffee-color eyes. Ask what makes her laugh and she says, “My divorce.” What else? Tom and Jerry cartoons)she is, after all, just 10 years old, and loves playing jacks and dolls with her favorite sister, Haifa. Nevertheless, this year Nujood became Yemen's first child bride to legally end her marriage. “I wanted to protect myself,” she says, “and other girls like me.”

Yemen is full of child brides. Roughly half of Yemeni girls are married before 18, some as young as eight. Child marriage, common in South Asia, sub- Saharan Africa and Middle-Eastern countries such as Yemen, is dangerous for brides and their children. As Glamour interviews Nujood with the help of a translator, an 18-year-old neighbor, who was married at 13 and now has four children, sits listening. Her toddler cries, and she swats him away. “They married me very young,” she explains. “I don't have time to be a gentle mother.”

Before her marriage, Nujood loved school)specifically math and Quran classes)and made her father promise not to pull her out to be wed. But when she was nine, her parents arranged a husband for her. Nujood was dazzled by her wedding presents: three dresses; perfume; two hairbrushes; and two hijabs, or women's head scarves. The groom, a 30-year-old courier, gave her a $20 ring, which Nujood says he soon took back to buy clothes for himself. She tells her story sitting on a grubby mattress in one of two rooms shared by her nine family members in Sana'a, Yemen's capital. A bare bulb illuminates a clock on the wall. It's nearly midnight, but Nujood's beloved Haifa, nine, is still selling gum on the street corner. Their father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, a former street sweeper, has 16 children, two wives, and no job.

Poverty often leads to child marriage since a typical Yemeni earns about $900 a year, and marrying off girls means fewer mouths to feed. Then there is a question of honor. One of Nujood's sisters had been raped, another kidnapped. When her father heard the kidnapper was eyeing Nujood, he thought marriage would save her. Instead, she says, she was beaten by in-laws, and nights were a hellish game of tag, with Nujood running from room to room to escape sex with her husband; he raped her anyway.

Nujood begged for help. “I was sad and angry,” her mother, Shuaieh, says, “but I still felt [her marriage] was the thing to do.” It was Nujood's “auntie”)her father's other wife, a beggar who lives in one room with her five children)who told the girl she might look for justice in court.

Two months after her wedding, Nujood returned to her family's house to visit Haifa. When her parents left for the day, Nujood did something virtually unheard-of in Yemen: She went out by herself and took a bus and a taxi to Sana'a's main court. All morning she waited, until a judge saw her sitting there. “I want a divorce,” Nujood told him. The story of Nujood's audacity spread to Shada Nasser, a human rights lawyer. “I didn't believe it,” she says. She asked why the girl needed a divorce. Nujood's reply: “I hate the night.” Nasser agreed to take the case free of charge. “But you must smile,” she said, “and you must trust me.”

Nujood's is only one of Nasser's high-profile cases. When the 44-year-old started her career in the 1990s, hers was the first female law office in Sana'a. Nasser built her practice by offering free services to imprisoned women. “Yemeni women have few rights,” Nasser says, “and they don't know those they do have.”

Women like Nasser are vital in Yemen, which has one of the world's lowest rankings for gender equality, according to the United Nations. In Sana'a, women's faces are usually hidden behind scarves, and walking or driving alone can be dangerous; only one in four Yemeni girls makes it to secondary school, leading to an estimated 65 percent female illiteracy rate.

Yemeni law allows girls of any age to wed, but it forbids sex with them until the indefinite time they're “suitable for sexual intercourse.” In court, Nasser argued that Nujood's marriage violated law, since she was raped. When Nujood took the stand, “the judge asked if she wanted to resume the marriage after a 'rest' for three or five years,” recalls Nasser. “No,” Nujood said, “I hate this man, and I hate this marriage. Let me continue my life and go to school.”

Last spring, a week after Nujood's trip to court, the judge granted her historic divorce. Her story made world news; more critically, it reached other child brides like Nujood)at least three of whom have since asked for divorces of their own.

So what can American women do to help child brides? Most advocates say that schools are crucial)that educating girls is the best way to change the culture. “When you promote education, you create new roles for women,” says Gabool al-Mutawakel, general manager of the Girls World Communication Center (GWCC) in Sana'a, which offers courses in English, computers and family planning to impoverished girls. In honor of Nujood and Nasser, Glamour has chosen the GWCC to be the recipient of money raised through the 2008 Glamour Women of the Year Fund initiative; donations that readers make will help child brides and girls at risk of early marriage finish school. “Yemeni people are receptive to educated women in the workforce,” al-Mutawakel says. “When a woman can contribute, they're encouraging.”

Nujood's divorce reinforced her spirit. “It made me strong,” she smiles. “Now my life is sweet as candy.” Back with her family, she says she wants to be a lawyer; two foreign benefactors have agreed to pay for her school supplies and higher education. This fall, Nujood went to school for the first time since her marriage. On that day, in her brand-new uniform)a bottle-green robe and a white hijab)Nujood stood with Haifa in the sunny schoolyard, waiting for her hard-won childhood to begin again