In Khardji,the village in Yemen where I was born, women are not taught how to make choices. When she was about 16, Shoya, my mother, married my father, Ali Mohammad al-Ahdel, without protest. And when he decided four years later to choose a second wife, my mother obediently accepted his decision. It was with that same resignation that I at first agreed to my marriage, without realizing what was at stake. At my age, you don’t ask yourself many questions.
Omma—Mama—gave birth to me the way she delivered all her 16 children: at home. I grew up watching Omma take care of the house and itching for the day I would be old enough to tag along with my two big sisters when they fetched water from the spring. I was two or three years old when a violent dispute broke out between my father and the other villagers. We had to leave right away.
Our arrival in Sana’a was a shock. The capital was a blur of dust and noise. We moved into a slum building in the Al-Qa neighborhood. My father finally landed a job as a sweeper for the sanitation authority.
In the neighborhood school, I’d done very well my first year and had just begun my second. One February evening in 2008, Aba—Papa—told me he had some good news.
“Nujood, you are to be married.”
The news came out of nowhere. I didn’t really understand. At first I felt almost relieved because life at home had become impossible. Aba had never been able to find full-time employment after losing his street-sweeper job, so we were always late with the rent. My brothers joined the street vendors who tap on car windshields at red lights, hoping to sell a packet of tissues for coins. Then it was my sister Haïfa’s and my turn to try it. I didn’t like that.
More often now, Aba was spending his afternoons chewing khat with neighbors. He claimed it helped him forget his troubles. It was during one of those khat sessions that a man of about 30 had approached him.
“I would like our families to be united,” the man had said.
His name was Faez Ali Thamer, and he worked as a deliveryman. Like us, he came from Khardji, and he was looking for a wife. My father accepted his proposal. As next in line after my two sisters, I was the logical one to be married off.
That evening, I overheard a conversation between [my sister] Mona and our father.
“Nujood is too young to get married,” Mona insisted.
“It’s the best way to protect her. She won’t be raped by a stranger and become the prey of evil rumors. This man seems honest. He has promised not to touch Nujood until she’s older. Besides, we haven’t enough money to feed the whole family.”
My mother never said a thing. She seemed sad but resigned. In our country, it’s the men who give the orders.
My wedding preparations moved rapidly ahead, and I soon realized my misfortune when my future husband’s family decided that I must leave school. I loved school. It was my refuge, a happiness all my own.
On my wedding day, my female cousins began to ululate and clap their hands when they caught sight of me arriving. I, however, could hardly see their faces, my eyes were so full of tears.
In the back of the SUV waiting in front of our door, a short man was staring at me. He wore a long white zanna and had a mustache. His short wavy hair was mussed, and his face was poorly shaved. He was not handsome. So this was Faez Ali Thamer!
When the motor rumbled to life and the driver pulled away, I started crying, silently, with my face to the window as I watched Omma grow smaller and smaller.
A woman was waiting for us on the threshold of one of the stone houses in Khardji. I felt immediately that she didn’t like me. My new mother-in-law was old, with skin as wrinkled as a lizard’s. She gestured me to enter. The inside of the house had hardly any furnishings: four bedrooms, a living room, a tiny kitchen.
I fairly fell upon the rice and meat that his sisters had prepared. After our meal, some grown-ups from the village gathered to chew khat. No one seemed surprised by my tender age. Later I learned that marriages to little girls are not unusual in the countryside. There is even a tribal proverb that says, “To guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine-year-old girl.”
How relieved I felt when they led me to my room. A long woven mat was lying on the floor: my bed. I didn’t even need to put out the light to fall asleep.
I would rather never have awakened. When the door crashed open, I was startled awake. I’d barely opened my eyes when I felt a damp, hairy body pressing against me. Someone had blown out the lamp, leaving the room pitch dark. It was him! I recognized him from that overpowering odor of cigarettes and khat. He began to rub himself against me.
“Please, I’m begging you, leave me alone,” I gasped.
“You are my wife!”
I leaped to my feet. The door was not completely closed, and spying a glimmer of light, I dashed toward the courtyard.
He ran after me.
“Help! Help!” I shrieked, sobbing.
My voice rang in the night, but it was as if I were shouting into a void. I ran, panting for breath. I stumbled over something and scrambled to my feet to take off again, but arms caught me, held me tightly, wrestled me back into the bedroom, pushed me down on the mat. I felt paralyzed, as if I had been tied down.
Hoping to find a female ally, I called out to my mother-in-law.
There was no reply.
When he took off his tunic, I rolled into a ball to protect myself, but he began pulling at my nightshirt.
I tried to get away again, moaning, “I’ll tell my father!”
“You can tell your father whatever you like. He signed the marriage contract.”
“You have no right!”
He started to laugh, nastily.
“You are my wife. Now you must do what I want!”
Suddenly it was as if I’d been snatched up by a hurricane, flung around, struck by lightning, and I had no more strength to fight back. Something burning invaded the deepest part of me. No matter how I screamed, no one came to help me. It hurt, awfully. I shrieked one more time, I think, then lost consciousness.