When Nujood Ali was only 10, her parents married her off to a complete stranger who abused and beat her. In an exclusive excerpt from her new memoir, here is the story of how she went to court in Yemen and demanded a divorce. Plus read more of our Women in the World coverage.
In this excerpt, Nujood Ali has just escaped from her husband, who has been abusing and beating her, and found her way to the local courthouse where she approaches a judge.
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 darknes. He seems to have trouble believing me.
“I want to get divorced!”
“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.” I don’t sob, not even once, while speaking to him. I feel trembly, but I know what I want: I want an end to this hell. I’ve had enough of suffering in silence.
“But you’re so young and frail,” he murmurs.
I look at him and nod. He starts nervously scratching his mustache. If only he’ll agree to save me! He’s a judge, after all. He must have lots of power.
“And why do you want a divorce?” he continues in a more natural tone, as if trying to hide his astonishment. I look him straight in the eye. “Because my husband beats me.” It’s as if I had slapped him right in the face. His expression freezes again. He has just realized that something serious has happened to me and that I have no reason to lie to him.
Point-blank, he asks me an important question: “Are you still a virgin?”
I swallow hard. I’m ashamed of talking about these things. It’s deeply upsetting. In my country, women must keep their distance from men they don’t know. And this is the first time I’ve ever seen this judge. But in that same instant I understand that if I want to win, I must take the plunge.
“No. I bled.”
He’s shocked. Abruptly, I have the feeling that of the two of us, he is the one who’s flinching. 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 strangely relieved, actually, to have been able to confide in someone at last. My body feels so much lighter. I watch him grab his phone with a shaking hand. I hear him say a few things to someone who must be a colleague of his. As he talks, he waves his other hand all around. He appears determined to try to rescue me from my misery. If only he can solve the problem once and for all! With a bit of luck, he’ll act quickly, very quickly, and this evening I’ll be able to go home to my parents and play with my brothers and sisters, just like before. In a few hours, I will be divorced. Divorced! Free again. Without a husband, without that dread of finding myself alone, at nightfall, in the same bedroom with him. Without that fear of suffering, over and over, that same torment.
I am celebrating too soon.
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. It’s a delicate and difficult case.
And unfortunately, I cannot promise that you will win.”
This second man is named Mohammad al-Ghazi, and according to Abdo, he’s the chief judge. Mohammad al-Ghazi seems embarrassed, ill at ease. In his entire career, he says, he has never seen a case like mine. They both 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.
A question of family honor, it seems. My situation is most exceptional, and complicated.
“We’ll have to find a lawyer,” Abdo explains, somewhat at a loss.
A lawyer—but what for? Of what use is a court if it can’t even grant divorces on the spot? I couldn’t care less about being an exceptional case. Laws are for helping people, yes or no? These judges seem very nice, but do they realize that if I go home without any guarantee, my husband will come get me and the torture will start all over again? No, I don’t want to go home.
“I want to get divorced!”
I frown fiercely to show I mean it.
The sound of my own voice makes me jump. I must have raised my voice too loud—or is it these big white walls that make everything echo?
“We’ll find a solution, we’ll find a solution,” Mohammad al-Ghazi murmurs, straightening his turban. But he has more than one cause for concern: The clock has just struck two in the afternoon, when offices close. Today is Wednesday, and the Muslim weekend is about to begin. The courthouse will not reopen before Saturday. I realize that they, too, are worried about my going back home, after what they’ve just heard.
“It’s out of the question, her going home. And who knows what might happen to her if she wanders the streets alone,” continues Mohammad al-Ghazi.
Abdo has an idea: Why couldn’t I take refuge at his house? He still can’t get over my story and is willing to do anything to tear me from the grip of my husband. But he must quickly withdraw his offer when he remembers that his wife and children have gone to the country for a few days, leaving him on his own. Our Islamic traditions stipulate that a woman must not be left alone with a man who is not her mahram, her close blood relative.
What to do?
A third judge, Abdel Wahed, finally volunteers his help. His family is at home, and they have room to take me in. I’m saved, at least for the moment. He, too, has a mustache, but he is more stocky than Abdo. His wire-rimmed glasses make him look very serious, and he’s quite imposing in his suit. I hardly dare speak to him. But I pull myself together; it’s better to overcome my shyness than to go home. And besides, what reassures me is that he seems like a real papa, who takes good care of his children. Not like mine.
His big car is comfortable and perfectly clean.
There is even cool air coming out of little vents, which tickles my face. It’s nice. I barely open my mouth during the ride. I’m not sure whether it’s from timidity, uneasiness, or because, finally, I feel all right with these grownups taking care of me.
“You’re a very brave girl,” says Abdel Wahed, breaking the silence. “Bravo! Don’t worry—you have the right to demand a divorce. Other girls before you have had the same problems, but unfortunately they didn’t dare talk about them. We’ll do everything we can to protect you. And we will never allow you to be sent back to your husband, never. That’s a promise.”
My lips curve into a little crescent moon. It’s been so long since I smiled.
“Perhaps you don’t realize it yet,” adds the judge, “but you’re an exceptional girl.”
Reprinted from I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali. Copyright 2010. Published by Three Rivers Press/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.