Nujood Ali: Married at 9; Divorced at 10

Trying to contain her excitement, Nujood Mohammed Ali sat patiently as her female cousins daubed her mouth with lipstick, smeared bright eyeshadow across the lids of her coffee-coloured eyes and gathered her hair into an elaborate style.

Soon Nujood would officially become the wife of 30-year-old courier Faez Ali Thamer, and although she wore a traditional Yemeni brown tunic instead of the white gowns she'd admired in the windows of up-market stores in the city centre, how could this slum-dweller be disappointed? She had, after all, been rewarded with some dazzling gifts: three dresses, two bottles of perfume, two hairbrushes, some oil for her hair and two new hijabs, or women's headscarves, to cover it. Nujood "thought it was just a party", explains her friend and human rights lawyer Shada Nasser.

"She didn't understand her mother and father would send her away with a man."

As her relatives continued to fuss over her and Nujood wriggled in her chair, her mother, Shuaieh, looked on, silently weeping. She had every reason to. On her wedding day, in February 2008, Nujood was just nine years old.

Growing up in Yemen - a nation cited by the United Nations as having the greatest gender inequality in the world, where more than half the girls are married before they're 18 - Nujood's fate was sealed early. She was promised to Thamer by her father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, a former streetsweeper who has 16 children with his two wives, and no job.

"Aside from the clothes and brushes, her parents sent her away entirely unprepared for what was to come," explains Nasser. "They didn't tell her what happens in a marriage, between a man and a woman."

The next night, after Thamer had driven his child bride to his home in a remote village, he raped her. In the
weeks that followed, Nujood's nights were punctuated by hellish games of tag as she ran from room to room in a desperate and vain bid to escape Thamer's violent advances.

"She felt her husband was a monster, chasing her," reveals Nasser. Physically and emotionally traumatised, Nujood begged her parents for help during a visit to Sana'a, but they refused to let her move back home. "I was very sad and angry, but I still felt [her marriage] was the thing to do," Shuaieh offers simply. "We said we would wait until she found help from Allah."

After months of torment, it wasn't Allah who intervened, but Nujood's "aunty" - her father's other wife, Dowla, a beggar who lives in a run-down one-room unit with her five children. With a wisdom that belied her wretched circumstances, Dowla told a terrified Nujood that she must look for justice in court.
In an unprecedented act of defiance, that's exactly what the shy, polite and slightly built schoolgirl did.

Today, following a landmark judgement, Nujood is Yemen's most famous divorcee, having stared down her country's deeply ingrained customs to become the first child bride to legally end her marriage. "I wanted to protect myself," says Nujood, quietly, "and other girls like me."

The historic victory made Nujood a poster girl for women's rights and earned her the admiration of women the world over - from impoverished villagers in Yemen to Nicole Kidman and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"[She is] one of the greatest women I have ever seen," stated Clinton, emphatically. "She set an example with her courage."

Indeed, Nujood's audacious step was unheard of in powerfully patriarchal Yemen, an arid land of 23 million on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. On the streets of Sana'a, it's rare to see the face of an adult woman since the niqab, a headscarf that leaves only a slit for the eyes, is almost universal. Only one in four Yemeni girls makes it to secondary school, which helps to explain the country's staggering female illiteracy rate of more than 60 per cent. To make matters worse, in 2008, a panel of Islamic clerics set up a "vice and virtue" militia to monitor public morality, allowing these civilian "guardians" to challenge women seen walking or driving alone.

As Nujood tells her story, perched on a mattress in her family's home in Sana'a, an 18-year-old neighbour - who was married at 13 and now has four children - sits in the background, listening intently. Her toddler cries and she swats him away.

"They married me off very young," explains the teenager. "I don't have time to be a gentle mother."

Yemen is full of child brides, a tragic consequence of poverty and a lack of universal education. While it's perfectly legal (and also common in South Asia, Africa, and other parts of the Middle East), the harm it does to a Yemeni girl's intellectual, physical, and mental growth is incalculable. It signals an end to her education, which seals her in a cycle of poverty in society and subservience at home. Compounding the injustice, many get pregnant very quickly, and the dangers of children having children include trauma and birth complications due to undeveloped pelvises.

In November last year, the United Nations Committee Against Torture called the early marriage of girls "inhuman and degrading treatment". Despite this, until Nujood, no Yemeni child bride had ever asked authorities to grant her a divorce.

But even before she marched into court, Nujood showed an unusual self-assurance. She loved school - particularly maths and Koran lessons - and had made her father promise not to pull her out of school to be wed. "When you look in her eyes, you feel something special," says Nasser. "She is not afraid, and she understands what she wants."

But not long before her 10th birth-day, her parents announced they had arranged a husband for her. Initially, Nujood didn't understand what marriage would really mean, and she was awestruck by her wedding presents, watching wide-eyed as the female wedding guests belly danced and clapped at the celebration. The groom, Thamer, gave her a $20 wedding ring, which Nujood says he soon took back and sold to buy clothes for himself. He also insisted she leave school one month before they married, and as the wedding day neared, she began to sense her looming misfortune.

A Yemeni male earns about $1000 a year, and marrying off daughters means, quite simply, there are fewer mouths to feed. There's also the question of honour. One of Nujood's sisters had been raped, another kidnapped and forced into marriage. When her father heard Nujood was also in danger of being abducted, he thought marriage would protect her.

It didn't. In addition to the repeated rapes by Thamer, Nujood claims she endured beatings from her new in-laws. "After the wedding, my life became difficult," says Nujood, with stunning understatement. "I had to cook all the meals, and go collect firewood on the mountainside. I'd get splinters all over my hands and legs. When I complained to my husband, he just said to me, 'Now you're working, just like my sisters do.'"

Two months after the wedding, Thamer allowed Nujood to return to her family's home in Sana'a to visit her favourite sister, Haifa. Nujood pleaded with her parents to save her from her husband, but they told her she was better off staying with him. Later Nujood visited Dowla, who she has great fondness for, and poured her heart out. Her compassionate stepmother insisted Nujood seek help from a court as soon as possible. Dowla had her own trials as a mother of five children, one severely handicapped, forced to beg in the streets for the pittance she paid for their one-room unit. She gave Nujood all the money she had.

The next day, Nujood donned the niqab that Thamer had forced her to wear in public since her wedding day and caught a bus and taxi to Sana'a's central courthouse. Though overwhelmed by the teeming crowds, she strode in and waited determinedly until the court cleared of clerks and lawyers, and a local judge noticed her sitting on a bench. When he asked why she was there, Nujood's answer shocked him:
"I want a divorce," the little girl declared. "And I want to go back to school."

The judge, a father himself, knew he had to help her. After dispatching officials to place Thamer and Nujood's father under temporary arrest, he took Nujood home with him. She stayed for three days while police verified her story.

In the meantime, word of Nujood's legal fight had reached Shada Nasser, a prominent Yemeni human rights
lawyer based in Sana'a. "I thought maybe they were joking," says Nasser of Nujood's unprecedented request. "I didn't believe it." But when she met with Nujood and asked her why she wanted a divorce, the little girl began to cry and summed up her desperation in four heartbreaking words: "I hate the night."

"I believe you," whispered the lawyer, who decided to waive her fee and take on the case. "But you must smile, and you must trust me."

Nujood is just one of Nasser's high-profile cases. When the 45 year old began practising law in the '90s, there was only one other female lawyer in Sana'a, and women - typically discouraged from interactions with men - rarely sought legal help. Nasser defiantly built up her clientele by visiting prisons and offering her services free of charge to female inmates, many of whom had been abandoned by their families.

"Yemeni women have very few rights," says Nasser, a striking woman with flashing dark eyes and a calm demeanour, who defies conservative Yemen's norms by driving a car and wearing a hijab instead of the niqab. "And they don't know about those they do have."

Although Yemeni law allows girls of any age to marry, it bans their husbands from having sex with them until the indeterminate time that they're deemed "suitable for sexual intercourse". In Nujood's case, Nasser argued that the marriage violated the law, because she had been raped from the first night.

The first hearing of Nujood's case was closed, with just five people - the judge, the couple, Nujood's father and Nasser present. The judge asked Nujood why she wanted a divorce. "He beat me and he took my money," Nasser recalls her saying. "And he doesn't give me the right to go outside and play with my friends." She paused for a moment, then added: "He asked me to take off my clothes ... he did something very, very bad to me."

Later in the proceedings, "the judge asked if she wanted to continue the marriage after taking a 'rest' for three or five years", says Nasser. "No," responded Nujood, firmly. "I hate this man, and I hate this marriage. Let me go, continue my life, and go to school."

On the day of the judgement - a week after she asked the judge for help - the courtroom overflowed with bystanders. Every seat was taken and every aisle crammed with police, journalists, and ordinary Yemenis, curious to see this extraordinary girl. For a time, Nujood hid in an office, overwhelmed by the hubbub.

"They're here to hear the truth," coaxed Nasser. "Tell them!" But it was the judge who delivered the news that so many people had come to hear - the divorce was granted.

Incredibly, since the marriage contract had been legal, no-one was prosecuted, and Thamer and Nujood's father were released. And under Yemeni law - since the marriage was legal - there was no rape, even though Nasser argued that there had been. In fact, religious law stipulated Nujood had to pay her
ex-husband $280 in compensation, a sum donated by another Yemeni lawyer. While news of the judgement made international headlines, it also reached its most crucial audience - Yemeni child brides, at least five of whom have since requested divorces of their own.

In the months that followed, Nujood became something of a global celebrity. News reports flashed her face around the world and she was invited to Europe and America to receive plaudits, awards and appear on TV chat shows. Her case inspired a move in the Yemeni parliament to set the nation's minimum marriage age for both boys and girls to 17. The law was passed in February last year, only to be returned to parliament a few days later, after conservatives objected.

They argued that it was for parents, not the state, to decide when their daughters were ready to wed.
But the spotlight brought its own complications for Nujood, including accusations she had shamed Yemen by publicising her plight. When she returned to the country after a press tour in Paris promoting a book about her case by French writer Delphine Minoui, Nujood was stopped at the airport. Nasser says Nujood was then interrogated on grounds of "national security" about why she had spoken to the French media.

Last year, a CNN crew went to Sana'a and found that despite having benefactors to pay for her school fees, Nujood was only attending sporadically. She regretted cooperating with the media, and was disappointed her story hadn't brought her family the money they had expected.

For a time, relations soured between Nasser and Nujood's family. Nujood's father, says Nasser, accused
the lawyer of making $1 million from an award recognising his daughter.

"[Nujood] was upset, because her family made some accusations against me," explains Nasser. "But she asked me to forgive her father. I said, 'You are like my daughter. Please, continue your studies.'"

Now, two years since they first met, the lawyer and her client speak nearly every week. Nujood and her family have moved to a comfortable house, and receive royalties from Minoui's book. Nujood heeded Nasser's advice, and is back at school. "She wants to become a lawyer, and help other children," reveals Nasser. "She is very heroic."