Some countries protect their children and others exploit theirs.
While America was watching authorities do their duty and seize children from a Mormon compound in Texas in order to protect them from potential underage marriage and sexual abuse, a single-minded girl with no police or legal protection bravely defied Sharia law and her country’s male-dominated culture to divorce her husband. And, she is just eight years old.
Born in the year 2000, Nujood Ali was married two-and-a-half months ago to a man twenty years her senior after she was made to sign a marriage contract, arranged between her father and her “suitor.” The contract, a strictly commercial transaction which usually involves the groom paying a “bride price,” was supposed to allow Nujood to reside with her parents until she was 18. However, only a few days later, those same parents forced their daughter to move in with her new "husband," who then brutally tormented her.
“Always, when I wanted to play in the garden, he hit me and said I should go with him into the bedroom,” Ali told the Yemen Times, adding that she would then run from room to room to escape him, but in vain. “In the end, he always got me.”
Finally, after two months of horrendous sexual abuse, in which Nujoud said her husband did “bad things with me,” the unwilling child bride turned to her father and an aunt for help. The aunt did nothing while the father, who had also been physically abusive towards her, told his daughter in response to her plea for assistance in getting a divorce: “I can’t do anything for you. If you want, go to the court alone.”
And that is exactly what the eight-year-old did. Facing what appeared to be a hopeless situation in such a male-dominated society and armed with nothing but her courage, Ali ran away to a maternal uncle and then bravely appeared before a court in the Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to file cases against both her father and husband, demanding the dissolution of her marriage.
In her overwhelming desire to escape her marital hell, Nujood gave as grounds for her divorce: “My husband was very harsh with me and when I implored him to have pity, he would hit me, box my ears and abuse me. I want a decent life and the divorce.”
The judge took pity on what a reporter described as a “sweet but sad” child, who “knows and comprehends so many things,” and had both her father and husband taken into custody. The judge also allowed the little girl to reside in his house for several days before turning her over to the sympathetic uncle.
The husband was furious that his “wife” had the audacity to seek a divorce. However, this is an attitude all too common in countries where wives are bought as slaves and thus regarded as a husband’s commercial property.
“I will not divorce her, and it is my right to keep her,” said the outraged spouse to the Yemen Times. “…It is not a matter of loving her; I don’t. But it is just a challenge to her and her uncle who think that they can keep me in jail and also the judge has no right to put me here. How did she dare to complain about me?”
Nujood is not Yemen’s first famous child bride. Zana Muhsen was a 15-year-old English schoolgirl of Arab-British descent when her Yemenite father sold her in England in 1983 for $3000 dollars to a countryman as a wife for his 14-year-old son. Her sister, Nadia, also 14, was sold for the same purpose and bride price to another Yemenite, whose son was 13.
The two sisters were detained against their will in Yemen for eight years with husbands they did not want, having babies they did not want, before diplomatic pressure and assistance from the international media finally freed Zana. Nadia stayed behind because of her children, who, due to the bride price, always remain with the father in case of a divorce.
In her best-selling book, Sold: A Story of Modern-Day Slavery, Zana outlined the two British sisters’ years of suffering, physical abuse and primitive living and working conditions in Yemen, during which time the authoress met child brides as young as ten.
The 2007 UNICEF photo of the year also made the world aware of the millions of girls sold as child brides every year, denied forever the opportunity to determine their own lives. In it, a forty-year-old man is seen sitting beside 11-year-old fiancée, named Ghulam, who appears to be giving him a contemptuous look on the day of their engagement.
When asked by American photographer, Stephanie Sinclair, what she felt that day, the slightly confused girl, whose answer Nujood would probably have matched word for word (had she been asked) upon meeting her husband, responded: “Nothing. I don’t know this man. What should I feel?”
According to UNICEF, there are more than 60 million underage brides worldwide with half of these living in South Asia. The parents, like Ghulam’s and Nujood’s, are most often poor and marry their daughters off, sometimes while still children, for the bride price. Once married, the task of these infants, almost as soon as they reach puberty, is to bear their husband children.
Nujood’s divorce became final this week. The spurned husband, who at first rejected her divorce demand, accepted a pay-off from an anonymous donor to agree to the end of the “marriage.” Incredibly, neither he nor Nujood’s father will face any charges over their cruel treatment of the innocent girl, since there is no law in Yemen against child marriages. They have legally committed no crime.
According to the International Center For Research On Women, Yemen ranks thirteenth on a list of twenty countries where marriages of female minors (girls under 18) are common. In one area of the Middle Eastern country, according to the Yemen Times, new brides average ten years of age while in another girls usually marry at age eight. The ICRW states that about 50 percent of the Yemen’s marriages involve underage girls. Niger tops the list with 76 percent.
But Nujood’s courage may change things for hundreds of other girls in Yemen facing the horrific fate of a child marriage. Her brave act in coming forward against tradition, family and the will of her husband to seek a divorce, probably the youngest girl, it is noted, ever to have asked for one in that country, is viewed by women’s groups and sympathetic politicians as a good opportunity to enact legislation designating 18 as a minimum age for marriage for all.
However, the Yemeni Parliament’s Jurisprudence Committee says “there are no legislative grounds to impose such a law based on its understanding of Islam.” Well, there you have it. Forget the barbarity of rape and thirteen-year-olds having babies, plus all the subsequent psychological and emotional damage, it just is not religiously correct for some.
“Those who approve of girls marrying at 13, 14 or even below 18, are barbaric men who abuse childhood and are irresponsible,” correctly noted Yahiya Al-Najar, a former Yemeni government minister and religious scholar in the Times of those who oppose a minimum age.
Nujood is still concerned about her younger sisters suffering her cruel fate, as her two older sisters did before her. Nevertheless, the resolute youngster, who used to “hate the nights” because of the unwanted sexual encounters, is looking forward to the bright days of a husband-less future.
"I am so happy to be free and I will go back to school and never think of getting married again,” she told the Times. “It is a good feeling to be rid of my husband and his bad treatment.”
To which one can only add: it is heartening to see that even within the horrifying and obscene structures of Islamic gender apartheid, women, even as young as eight, can sometimes triumph over injustice.