People say judges are the ones who help people in need. So I have to find one and tell him my story. I’m exhausted. It’s hot under my veil, I have a headache, and I’m so ashamed.
I spy a group of men in uniforms. If they see me, they might arrest me. A little girl running away from home. Trembling, I discreetly latch on to the first passing veil, hoping to get the attention of the woman it conceals. “I want to talk to the judge.”
Two big eyes framed in black stare at me in surprise.
“What judge are you looking for?”
“Take me to a judge—it doesn’t matter which one!”
She stares at me, astonished.
“Follow me,” the woman finally says. The door opens onto a room full of people, and at the far end, behind a desk, a thin-faced man with a mustache. It’s the judge at last. I sit down, rest my head against the back of the chair, and await my turn.
“And what can I do for you?” A man’s voice rouses me from my dozing. It is a curiously gentle voice. I rub my face and recognize, standing in front of me, the judge with the mustache. The room is almost empty.
“I want a divorce.”
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.
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.
The great day has arrived sooner than expected. The courtroom is full. Shada’s media campaign has paid off—I have never seen so many cameras. Beneath my black scarf, I’m perspiring heavily.
Deep down I feel frozen solid, unable to move. Just how does a divorce happen? What if the monster simply says no? If he begins threatening the judge?
“I was gentle,” said the monster.
“That’s not true!” I yelled in anger.
I shiver: I recognize Aba and … the monster, escorted by two soldiers. The prisoners look furious. Passing in front of us, the monster lowers his eyes, then abruptly turns back to Shada.
“Proud of yourself, hey?” he snarls.
Shada doesn’t even blink. The look in her eyes reveals all the contempt she feels for him. I’ve learned a lot from her.
“Don’t listen to him,” she tells me.
My heart pounds. When I look up, I find myself staring into Aba’s eyes. He seems so upset. “Honor,” he had said. Seeing his face, I begin to understand what that very complicated word means. I can see in my Aba’s eyes that he’s angry and ashamed at the same time. I’m so furious at him, but I can’t help feeling sorry for him too. The respect of other men—that’s so important here.
It’s Judge Abdo’s turn to speak.
“Here we have the case of a little girl who was married without her consent. Once the marriage contract was signed without her knowledge, she was taken away by force into the province of Hajja. There her husband sexually abused her, when she hadn’t reached the age of puberty and was not ready for sexual relations. He also struck and insulted her. She has come here today to ask for a divorce.”
The big moment is coming, when the guilty are punished.
Al-Ghazi raps the desk a few times with a small wooden hammer.
“Listen to me carefully,” he tells the creature I hate. “You married this little girl two months ago, you slept with her, you struck her. Is that true, yes or no?”
The monster blinks, then replies, “No, it isn’t true! She and her father agreed to this marriage.”
I clutch at Shada’s coat.
The judge turns to my father.
“Did you agree to the marriage?”
“How old is your daughter?”
“My daughter is 13.”
Thirteen? No one ever told me I was 13. I wring my hands, trying to calm down.
“I married off my daughter for fear she would be stolen.”
I don’t really understand what he is talking about. His answers are vague and complicated, and the judge’s questions are increasingly incomprehensible. Voices are raised. The accused men defend themselves. The uproar in the room grows louder as my heart pounds faster.
The judge motions for us to follow him into another room, away from the public. “Faez Ali Thamer, did you consummate the marriage, yes or no?” asks the judge.
I hold my breath.
“Yes,” admits the monster. “But I was gentle with her, I was careful. I did not beat her.”
His answer is like a slap in the face, reminding me of all those other slaps, the insults, the suffering.
“That’s not true!” I yell, beside myself with anger.
Everyone turns to look at me. But I’m the first to be astonished at my outburst. After that, everything happens quickly. The monster says that my father betrayed him by lying about my age. Then Aba becomes furious and says he had agreed to wait until I was older before touching me. The monster announces that he’s ready to accept the divorce, but on one condition: My father must pay back my bride-price. And Aba snaps back that he was never paid anything at all. It’s like a marketplace! How much? When? How?
In the end, I am saved by the judge’s verdict.
“The divorce is granted,” he says.
My divorce has changed my life. When I go out in the street, sometimes women call to me, congratulating me. I recently left my uncle’s house and returned to live with my parents. We all seem to be pretending to have forgotten what happened.
My nightmares stopped a few weeks ago. Instead, I’ve been dreaming about school. When I grow up, I’ll be a lawyer, like Shada, to defend other little girls like me.
Update: Proceeds from the book about her experience have lifted Nujood and her family out of poverty; they have their own home in Sana’a and a steady income. A friend and adviser of Nujood’s says that the now 15-year-old has had trouble adjusting to her celebrity but is studying English and wants to continue her education abroad.
In April 2009, the Yemeni parliament raised the legal age of consent to 17, but it was overturned the next day. Today, Yemen is in political turmoil, and men can take brides of any age.