Rarely has a title summed up the contents of a book as accurately as I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. At the sake of slipping into easy stereotypes, I am old enough to remember similar situations in the United States: very young girls being married, usually because of family interconnections. So it’s inaccurate to say that only young girls in Yemen—or in other Muslim societies–are likely to have such arrangements result in their marriages before menstruation. What may be unique is the quasi-happy ending to Nujood Ali’s story. The marriage is brief because of her bold escape after several weeks of abusive relations with her husband—rape, physical and mental torture but, then, divorce.
After that divorce, Nujood was able to be a child again, the only thing she wanted all along. During the trial, her father argued that if she hadn’t been married, she would have been kidnapped like two of her older sisters. Numerous other conditions had contributed to Nujood’s marriage at ten. Her parents were illiterate and poor. Initially, they lived in a very remote area of the country. Yet, once they moved to the city, Nujood’s father’s job as a street-sweeper was short lived. He then relied increasingly on khat, ignoring the needs of his family. When the offer of a significant dowry was made, he could only think of the money and not his daughter.
The man who became Nujood’s husband, Faez Ali Thamer, told her father that he wouldn’t have sexual relations with her until her first period. Nujood herself was mostly bewildered by the marriage ceremony. She was much more interested in playing games with other children and watching cartoons on TV. As soon as the ceremony was over, she was forced to wear a niqab. Riding along with her husband’s family to his village, she thought, “How many times did I wish I could tear off that stifling black niqab? I felt so small, too small for this whole business—for the niqab, for this long ride far away from my parents, for this new life beside a man who disgusted me, a man I didn’t know.”
Nujood was lucky because her husband said he would let her visit her parents after the first few weeks of her marriage (and her nightly rapes). Back home, her parents were aghast, fearing that if she stayed with them, they’d be expected to return her dowry. So with little help from her family, on a day when she was expected to go to a shop and buy some bread, she scurried off to the local court because a friend told her that if she could tell a judge what had happened to her, perhaps the judge would take pity on her.
The result was even better than that; the judge took her home with him because he feared that Nujood’s father or husband would abscond with her, take her back to the village of her husband’s family. At the judge’s house, she was treated better than any time in her life. Notice the first item she cited in the list of creature comforts she enjoyed at his house: “I was treated to toys, tasty food, hot showers, and good-night kisses, like a real child.” And she adds, “Inside the house, I even had permission to take off my married woman’s veil, the one my mother-in-law makes me adjust as soon as it starts to slip. What happiness, not to fear blows from a stick, or tremble at the thought of going to bed, or flinch at the slightest sound of a door closing.”
The rescue becomes the restoration of her childhood, and the recognition of that need by both the compassionate judge and a very savvy woman lawyer, whom the judge arranged to have defend Nujood in the subsequent trial involving her husband and her father. Her case became a national scandal and quickly morphed into an international one. Journalists from around the world followed the trial, interviewed Nujood and aided her financially but–in one of the most telling incidents in this incredible story–right after Nujood’s won the trial, various journalists flooded her with toys, the symbols of her truncated childhood.
When Nujood asked why there were so many gifts, she was told that the occasion was her tenth birthday. The surprised little girl asked, “What’s a birthday?” That priceless moment is worth waiting for in this disturbing little narrative, co-written with Delphine Minoui, and ably translated by Linda Coverdale.
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
By Nujood Ali.
Translated by Linda Coverdale.
Three Rivers Press, 188 pp., $12.00
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.