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 starts nervously scratching his moustache. 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 realise 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.
The clock has just struck two, when offices close. Today is Wednesday, and the Muslim weekend is about to begin. “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. I’m saved, at least for the moment.
At nine o’clock Saturday morning we were sitting in Abdel Wahed’s office at the courthouse with Abdo and Mohammad al-Ghazi. Al-Ghazi was very worried.
“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.
In Yemen there are no shelters for girls like me, but I couldn’t remain with Abdel Wahed and his family, who had already done so much for me.
“Who is your favourite uncle?” one of the judges asked.
I thought the best choice would be Shoyi, Omma’s brother, a retired soldier with a certain prestige in my family. He lived with his two wives and seven children in a neighbourhood far from ours. True, he hadn’t opposed my marriage, but he, at least, did not beat his daughters.
Shoyi didn’t ask me many questions and let me play with my cousins. Basically, I think my uncle was as discomfited as I was by the whole thing.
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 coloured 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.”
This woman seems to have endless determination.
“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.
“Can you promise me that I will never return to my husband’s house?”
“I’ll do my very best to keep him from hurting you again. But you must be strong, because it may take some time. The hardest part is over. The hardest part was having the strength to escape, and you carried that off beautifully.”
“And now, may I ask you a question? How did you find the courage to run away – all the way to the courthouse?”
“The courage to run away? I couldn’t bear his meanness anymore. I couldn’t.”
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.
“Nujood, a smile!” shouts a photographer. A row of cameras forms in front of me. I cling to Shada. Her scent reassures me, the smell of jasmine I now know so well.
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?
At the entrance to the courtroom, the cameras begin to jostle for a good view.
I shiver: I recognise 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. “Honour,” he 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.
Mohammad al-Ghazi, the chief justice of the tribunal, sits down behind his raised desk. Judge Abdo joins him in the chair next to him.
“In the name of God, the Almighty and Merciful, I declare this court open,” announced al-Ghazi, inviting us to approach the bench.
Shada motions for me to follow her. To our left, Aba and the monster also move forward. I sense the crowd seething behind us. Part of me would give anything, right at this moment, to be a tiny mouse.
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 announces.
SEPT 16, 2008
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 parents have moved to a new neighbourhood, Dares. Here I can keep an eye on Haïfa. If anyone dares to ask for her hand, I will protest. And if no-one listens to me, I’ll call the police.
My nightmares stopped a few weeks ago. Instead, I’ve been dreaming about school. This morning, the driver is here. The international humanitarian association that is paying school fees for Haïfa and me has sent him. I grab my backpack.
When I grow up, I’ll be a lawyer, like Shada, to defend other little girls like me.
One of the teachers invites us to sit down at the desks. I choose one next to a window. Glancing around me, I can’t help heaving a great sigh of relief. In my green and white uniform, I’m only one of 50 girls in this class. I am a pupil in the second year of primary school. When I get home, I will have homework to do, and drawings to make with colored pencils.
Today I finally feel that I’ve become a normal little girl again. Like before. I’m just me.
Epilogue: In April 2009, the Yemeni parliament passed a new law raising the legal age of consent to 17, but it was overturned the next day under pressure from conservative opposition parties. A change to the legal age of consent is still under negotiation.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FRANCE AS “MOI NOJOUD, 10 ANS, DIVORCEE” BY MICHEL LAFON PUBLISHING, PARIS C 2009. PUBLISHED IN US BY THREE RIVERS PRESS, AN IMPRINT OF THE CROWN PUBLISHING GROUP, A DIVISION OF RANDOM HOUSE, INC.
3 of 92 Comments
|Zaheer on 28 March 2013 ,16:48 |
the story was heart touching. She show braveness and tale step for her freedom. I especially thankful to judges who cooperate with girl and get divorce. Wish you a great life.
|Iqbal Mahmud on 18 March 2013 ,15:51 |
Really great. It's time to raise our voices. Salute Nujhood.
|mary on 13 March 2013 ,17:50 |
I was really struck with this story of Nujood. I hope that you will be able to reach your dream of becoming a lawyer like Shada.. Nujood I salute you for being so brave and courages of opening the eyes of the people around you....Have a great life a head...
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