I had to adjust quickly to a new life. I had no right to leave the house, no right to complain, no right to say no. During the day, I had to obey my mother-in-law’s orders: Cut up the vegetables, wash the floor, do the dishes. Whenever I stopped for a moment, my mother-in-law pulled my hair.
He left every morning and returned right before sunset. Each time I heard him arrive, the same panic seized my heart. When night fell, I knew what would begin again. The same savagery, the same pain and distress. On the third day, he began hitting me, first with his hands, then with a stick. And his mother egged him on.
Whenever he would complain about me, she would tell him, “Hit her even harder. She must listen to you—she’s your wife.”
“If you divorce him,” father said, “my brothers and cousins will kill me!”
I lived in permanent fear. Whenever I could, I would hide in a corner, lost and bewildered. One morning, worn down by all my crying, he told me he would allow me to visit my parents. At last!
“Nujood,” said my father, “you are a married woman now. You must stay with your husband. If you divorce your husband, my brothers and cousins will kill me! Honor comes first.”
I went to see Dowla, my father’s second wife, who lived with her five children in a tiny apartment across from our street. I climbed the stairs, holding my nose to avoid the stench of garbage and communal toilets. Dowla opened her door wearing a long red and black dress and a huge smile.
“Nujood! What a surprise to see you again. Welcome!”
I liked Dowla. Tall and slender, she was prettier than Omma, and she never scolded me. The poor woman hadn’t had an easy time of it, though. My father neglected her completely. Her poverty forced her to beg in the street.
I poured out my heart to her, and my story seemed to affect her deeply. She thought quietly for a moment, then poured some tea. Handing it to me, she leaned over and looked into my eyes.
“Nujood,” she whispered, “if no one will listen to you, you must go straight to court.”
But of course! In a flash, I saw images of judges in turbans, lawyers in a hurry, men and women coming to complain about family problems, thefts, squabbles over inheritances. I’d seen a courtroom on a show I used to watch at the neighbors’ house.
“Go to the courthouse,” Dowla continued. “Ask to see the judge—his job is to help victims.”
The next morning, I waited impatiently for my mother to get up. “Nujood,” she said, handing over 150 rials, “buy some bread for breakfast.”
“Yes, Omma,” I replied obediently.
I took the street leading to the corner bakery. At the last minute, however, I changed direction, heading for the main avenue.
I had no idea where the courthouse was, however. I was overwhelmed with anxiety. Huddled by a streetlight, I was trying to collect my thoughts when I caught sight of a taxi. I’d taken such taxis, going to Bab al-Yemen with Mona.
I raised my hand and signaled him to stop.
“I want to go to the courthouse!”
Judge Abdo cannot conceal his surprise. “You want a divorce?”
“But … you mean you’re married?”
His features are distinguished. His white shirt sets off his olive skin. But when he hears my reply, his face darkens.
“At your age? How can you already be married?”
Without bothering to answer his question, I repeat in a determined voice: “I want a divorce.”
He nervously scratches his mustache. If only he’ll agree to save me.
“And why do you want a divorce?” he continues.
I look him straight in the eye. “Because my husband beats me.”
It’s as if I had slapped him in the face. His expression freezes again. Point-blank, he asks me, “Are you still a virgin?”
I swallow hard. I’m ashamed of talking about these things. But in that same instant, I understand that if I want to win, I must.
“No. I bled.”
He’s shocked. I can see his surprise, see him trying to conceal his emotions. Then he takes a deep breath and says, “I’m going to help you.”
I feel relieved. I watch him grab his phone with his shaking hand. With luck, he’ll act quickly, and this evening, I’ll be able to go home to my parents and play with my brothers and sisters, just like before. Divorced! Without that dread of finding myself alone, at nightfall, in the same bedroom with him.
A second judge joins us in the room, and he dashes my enthusiasm to bits.
“My child, this might very well take a lot more time than you think. And unfortunately, I cannot promise that you will win.”
This second man is Mohammad al-Ghazi, the chief judge. He says he has never seen a case like mine. They explain to me that in Yemen, girls are frequently married off quite young, before the legal age of 15. An ancient tradition, adds Judge Abdo. But to his knowledge, none of these precocious marriages has ever ended in divorce—because no little girl has, until now, showed up at a courthouse.
“We’ll have to find a lawyer,” Abdo explains.
Do they realize that if I go home without any guarantee, my husband will come get me, and the torture will start all over again?
“I want to get divorced!” I frown fiercely to show I mean it. The sound of my own voice makes me jump.
“We’ll find a solution,” Al-Ghazi murmurs, straightening his turban.
“It’s out of the question, her going home,” he continues. A third judge, Abdel Wahed, volunteers to help. His family has room to take me in.
At nine o’clock the following Saturday morning, we were sitting in Abdel Wahed’s office at the courthouse with Abdo and Mohammad al-Ghazi. Al-Ghazi was very worried.
“Nujood, I won’t abandon you,” Shada whispers to me. I feel safe with her.
“According to Yemeni law, it is difficult for you to file a complaint against your husband and your father,” he told me. Like many children born in Yemeni villages, I didn’t have a birth certificate, and I was too young to initiate proceedings against anyone. A contract had been signed and approved by the men of my family. According to Yemeni tradition, it was valid.
“For the moment,” Mohammad al-Ghazi told his colleagues, “we must act quickly. I suggest we place Nujood’s father and husband under temporary arrest. If we want to protect her, it’s better to have them in prison than at liberty.”
Prison! Would Aba ever forgive me? I was consumed with shame and guilt.
The next three days, I spent most of my time at the courthouse, hoping for a miracle. How many times would I have to go there? Abdo had warned me that my case was most unusual. But what do judges do when faced with one like that?
I am learning the answer from Shada. People say she is one of the best lady lawyers in Yemen who fights for women’s rights. She’s beautiful and smells of jasmine. As soon as I saw her, I liked her. She doesn’t cover her face. Shada wears a long, black, silky coat, with just a colored scarf on her head.
When she came to me the first time, I saw how she looked at me with great emotion before exclaiming, “Heavens!” Then she checked her watch, opened her appointment book, and rearranged her heavy schedule, calling family, friends, and colleagues; several times I heard her say, “I have to take on a very important case.”
“Nujood, I won’t abandon you,” she whispers to me. I feel safe with her. She knows how to find exactly the right words, and her lilting voice comforts me.