The little girl was waist-high, so small that the lawyers, clerks and judges hurrying through the courthouse almost missed her.
As lunchtime arrived and the crowds of noisy men and women cleared away, a curious judge asked her what she was doing sitting alone on a bench.
“I came to get a divorce,” 10-year-old Nujood Ali told the jurist.
Her impoverished parents had married her off to a man more than three times her age, who beat her and forced her to have sex, she explained. When she told her father and mother that she wanted out of the marriage, they refused to help. So an aunt provided her with bus money to travel to court and seek a divorce.
Within days of that April 2 encounter, Nujood’s tale and the plight of child brides in Yemen made international headlines. And thanks to the efforts of human rights lawyer Shada Nasser, who took up her cause, the girl at the center of the story has begun to overcome her trauma and dream of a better life.
Yemeni law sets the age of consent at 15. But tribal customs and interpretations of Islam often trump the law in this country of 23 million. A 2006 study conducted by Sana University reported that 52% of girls were married by 18.
Publicity surrounding Nujood’s case prompted calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18 for both men and women. Yemen’s conservative lawmakers refused to take up the issue. But the case sparked public discussion and newspaper headlines. Several more child brides came forward, including a girl who sought a divorce last week in the southern city of Ibb.
“This case opened the door,” Nasser says.
Nujood says that at first, she felt ashamed about what had happened to her. “But I passed through that,” she says, eyes narrowing beneath her black head scarf.
“All I want now is to finish my education,” she adds, her mouth curling into a smile. “I want to be a lawyer.”
The girl is being identified in this story because her name already has been widely publicized in Yemen, and neither her parents nor her lawyer objected.
Nujood’s unemployed father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, has two wives and 16 children. He is among the many tribal Yemenis who have migrated to the capital looking for work. Instead, he found misery.
He arranged to have Nujood married in February to Faez Ali Thamer, a thirtysomething motorcycle deliveryman from his native province, Hajja.
Nujood’s parents say they were trying to do what was best for their daughter and didn’t even receive a dowry, a claim many Yemenis don’t believe. The parents say the groom had promised he wouldn’t have sex with her until she reached puberty.
“We asked him to raise her,” said Shuaieh, the girl’s mother.
The groom has disputed that claim.
Ahdal, in his mid-40s, says he wanted Nujood to avoid the fate of two of his older sisters. One was kidnapped by a rival clan and another wound up in jail for trying to defend her, an example of the murky intertribal disputes that bedevil Yemen.
“I was trying to protect her,” Ahdal says during an interview in his family’s decrepit two-room flat on the capital’s outskirts.
Nujood looked forward to getting married, not understanding what it really meant. Aside from being a pre-adolescent bride, she is a fairly typical little girl. She likes playing hide-and-seek and tug-of-war with her friends and siblings. Her favorite colors are red and yellow, she says, and her favorite flavors are chocolate and coconut. She loves dogs and cats and dreams of being a turtle so she could swim in the sea.
“I’ve never seen the sea,” she says.
About 40 people attended the wedding in the village of Wadi Laa, where the groom lived. As a wedding gift, she received three new dresses and a $20 wedding ring. She was to live with him and his family.
The trouble started on the first night, when he demanded that they share a mattress. She resisted, walking out of the room, only to have him follow. Sometimes he beat her into submission. For weeks, she cried all day and dreaded the nights, when he would enter the room, blow out the oil lamp and demand sex.
“I asked him not to sleep next to me,” she recalls. “He told me, ‘No, we sleep together in the same room. Your father agreed to accept me as a husband.’ ”
On a visit weeks later to her parents’ house in the capital, she wept, saying that her husband was doing unmentionable things to her.
Her father said there was nothing he could do.
“My cousins would have killed me if I dishonored the family by asking for a divorce,” he said.
But her mother’s sister discreetly advised her to go to court.
The bewildered judge who found Nujood on the bench decided to bring her to his house for the weekend. His daughters had a swing and toys she’d never seen. They had satellite television, and for three days she feasted on cartoons.
Once the workweek began, the judge dispatched soldiers to arrest Nujood’s father and husband. He placed Nujood in the care of an uncle, her mother’s brother.
Still, the lawyers and judges had no idea how to handle her case. Nujood and her uncle languished in the courthouse for days until a middle-aged woman, the only one in the courthouse without an Islamic headdress covering her face, approached them.
“Are you Nujood?” asked Nasser, the lawyer, among Yemen’s leading women’s rights activists. “Are you the one asking for divorce?”
She was, Nujood replied.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Nasser says. The girl reminded her of her own daughter, Lamia, 8.
Nasser went to the cell where Thamer, the husband, was being held, and was shocked by the age difference between the two. “Why did you sleep with her?” she demanded. “She’s a little girl.”
He didn’t deny it, Nasser recalls. Instead he complained that Nujood’s father had said she was much taller and better looking than she really was.
Nasser vowed to Nujood that she would take her case without pay and that she would take care of her. She took her to her upscale home and offered to let her stay there.
Outraged, Nasser also called her contacts at the Yemen Times, the country’s English-language newspaper. The story of the brave little girl who went to court on her own to stand up for her rights captivated the country. News agencies picked up the story and sent it around the world.
When a sympathetic judge agreed to hear her case several weeks later, reporters packed the courtroom.
Verbally, Judge Mohammed Ghadi was merciless to the husband.
“You could not find another woman to marry in all of Yemen?” he demanded.
But legally, there was little he could do. No provision in Yemeni law provides for prosecution on sexual abuse charges within a marriage. Not only did the husband and father go free, but Thamer demanded $250, the equivalent of four months’ salary for a poor Yemeni, to agree to a divorce.
A sympathetic lawyer donated the cash.
Nujood was elated. “She was smiling,” Nasser recalls. “She said, ‘I want chocolate. I want pears, cake and toys.’ ”
Nasser bought her some new clothes. Donations began pouring in, with several wealthy Europeans offering to pay for her education. One newspaper held a big party for her. A Yemeni journalist gave her a cellphone.
When the controversy died down, Nujood insisted on going back to live with her parents, most likely because she is very close to her sister Haifa, 8. Her father promised that he would not marry off Nujood or any of her sisters.
The girl has refused to see a psychologist or a gynecologist. She says she doesn’t like doctors. And besides, she says, the experience has made her stronger and wiser.
She says she’s had enough of marriage and domestic life, and looks forward to beginning third grade and pursuing dreams she never knew she had.
“I want to defend oppressed people,” she says. “I want to be like Shada. I want to be an example for all the other girls.”