My head is spinning – I’ve never seen so many people. In the yard outside the courthouse, a crowd is bustling in every direction: men in suits and ties with yellowed files tucked under their arms; other men wearing the zanna, the traditional ankle-length tunic of northern Yemen; and all these women, shouting and weeping so loudly that I can’t understand a word. It’s as if I were invisible. No-one sees me: I’m too small for them. I’m only ten years old, maybe not even that. Who knows?
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 notice a man in a white shirt and black suit walking towards me. A judge, perhaps, or a lawyer? “Excuse me, mister, I want to see the judge.” “Over that way, up the steps,” he replies with hardly a glance at me, before vanishing back into the throng. My feet feel like lead when I finally step onto the marble floor.
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 moustache. 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 recognise, standing in front of me, the judge with the moustache. 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 realising 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. All I knew was that Mona, the second daughter and 13 years old at most, had suddenly gotten married. 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 neighbourhood. My father finally landed a job as a sweeper for the sanitation authority. Two months after our departure, Mona arrived with the husband who had so suddenly imposed himself on her life.
In the neighbourhood school, I’d done very well my first year, and had just begun my second. One February evening in 2008, Aba 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 neighbours. 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 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 rumours. 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 realised 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. I advanced slowly to avoid tripping over my outfit, which was too big for me. I’d been hastily dressed in a long tunic of a faded chocolate colour, which belonged to the wife of my future brother-in-law. A female relative had gathered my hair into a chignon that weighed down my head.
Barely two weeks had passed since I had been spoken for. The women celebrated my wedding in my parents’ tiny house; there were 40 of us. Meanwhile, the men gathered at the house of one of my uncles. Two days earlier, when the marriage contract had been signed, the event also had been men only. My dowry had been set at 150,000 rials, (about $740).
At sundown the guests took their leave and I dozed off, fully clothed. The next morning, Omma woke me. My little bundle was in front of the door. When a car horn sounded outside, my mother helped me cover myself in a black coat and scarf.
“From this day on, you must cover yourself when going out into the street. You are now a married woman. It is his honour that is at stake.”
I nodded sadly.
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 moustache. His short wavy hair was mussed and his face 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 grownups 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 recognised him from that overpowering odour 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 leapt to my feet. The door was not completely closed, and spying a glimmer of light, I dashed towards 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 paralysed, 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.
One morning I asked her permission to go play with the children my age.
“Impossible! That’s all we need, for you to go ruining our reputation.”
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.”
I lived in permanent fear. Whenever I could, I would hide in a corner, lost and bewildered. Days and nights went by like this. I missed Sana’a and school. My brothers and sisters. I thought of Haïfa, hoping she wouldn’t be married off like me.
One morning, worn down by all my crying, he told me he would allow me to visit my parents. At last! He would go with me and stay with his brother in Sana’a, but afterwards, he insisted, we had to return to the village. I rushed to gather my things.
“It is out of the question for you to leave your husband!” I had not expected my father’s reaction, which quickly put an end to the joy of my return. As for my mother, she kept quiet, simply murmuring, “That’s how life is, Nujood: women must endure this.”
But why hadn’t she warned me? Now I was trapped.
“Nujood,” repeated 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! Honour comes first.”
I was going around in circles, with no escape in sight. My father, brothers, uncles – no-one would listen to me.
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.
She invited me to sit on the big straw pallet that took up half the room, next to the tiny stove where water was boiling.
“Nujood,” she ventured, “you seem very worried.”
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 neighbours’ house.
“Go to the courthouse,” Dowla continued. “Ask to see the judge – his job is to help victims.”
I hugged Dowla tightly in thanks. She slipped 200 rials into my hand, the entire pittance – worth barely 70 cents – she’d managed to beg that very morning.
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 brought the folds of my scarf over my face. For once, this niqab turned out to be quite useful. I jumped in the yellow-and-white minibus to the centre of town, hoping to get out of my neighbourhood before my parents realised I was missing.
The door closed. Through the windows I watched the city stream by. “End of the line!” shouted the driver.
With trembling fingers I handed a few coins to the conductor. 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 signalled him to stop.
“I want to go to the courthouse!” I exclaimed to the driver, who stared at me in astonishment. The driver had no idea how grateful I was to him for not challenging me with questions.
With a sharp stab on the brake, he pulled his car up by the courtyard gate in front of an imposing building. The courthouse! I hurried out of the taxi and handed him the rest of my money.