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I AM NUJOOD Age 10, Divorced

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I AM NUJOOD Age 10, Divorced. If I had not discovered her at a Barnes and Noble outlet I would have invented her. On a book cover, I found her wearing...

Nujood is younger than Malala Yousufzai and has a tale more heart wrenching than Malala’s, a tale of crimes committed in the name of tradition and honour, redolent of what is happening to many girls in Haryana

If I had not discovered her at a Barnes and Noble outlet I would have invented her. On a book cover, I found her wearing a dark grey scarf over her head. She looked straight into my eyes and read out, even before I helloed her, the title of the book ghost-written for her, “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.”

Even before I saw her at the bookshop, I ran into her somewhere you can’t guess. She had an angelic smile and a pair of coffee-color eyes. When I watched her interviewing an American journalist, she oozed such confidence and clarity of the mind it took my breath away. How could a father send such a charming daughter to the marital abattoir? He married her off when she was ten, extracting a promise from her suitor, Faez Ali Thamer, three times her age, that he wouldn’t touch her “before the year after she has her first period” – as required by law in Yemen in return for a dowry of a little more than $750. But the first thing the husband did was to take her off school and violate her fragile body on the wedding night itself. Resistance invited regular beatings.

Two months into her marriage, the husband permitted her to visit her family home. There she made, on the advice of her father’s second wife, a daring bid to escape, hail a taxi and reach the courthouse to seek a divorce on grounds of abuse. Thank God, she escaped the fate of 12-year-old Sundri (in “The Wedding of Sundri” in Rakshanda Jalal’s anthology) who,hours after the Nikah, goes to the husband’s home, is declared kari (brought dishonor) and killed.

Present tense begins here

“I want to talk to the judge,” Nujood tells a woman at the courthouse. The woman kindly takes her to the chamber of judges. The judges are stunned to see a 10-year-old wisp seeking divorce. Still, they grant her divorce, jailing her father and husband during the proceedings. The subsequent media attention turns her into an instant celebrity.

One day she tells her story to a French journalist who gets it published in English and French as an autobiographical saga of the little girl, later translated into eighteen other languages including Arabic, Nujood’s mother tongue. Her memoir stayed five weeks as the No. 1 bestseller in France. Internationally known now, Nujood comes to the United States in 2008 when she and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are honored as two of “Glamour” magazine’s Women of the Year. Hillary describes her as “one of the greatest women I have ever seen.”

After divorce Nujood returns to school and to her family. Her homecoming was not as happy as it should have been. Her brothers avoided her for bringing shame upon the family. After she had come into riches things changed. “They’re very nice to her now. They treat her like a queen,” said a woman who translated Nujood for “The New York Times.”

However, in her middle teens her home scene has changed. The story was supposed to end with the divorce and Nujood getting back her wasted childhood. Royalties from her book were supposed to see her through the school and later help her become a lawyer. But her father, Ali Mohammed al-Ahdel, had squandered all the money and also married her younger sister off to a person twice her age.

Publishers Michel Lafon agreed to pay her father, $1,000 a month until she was 18 to support her upbringing. They also bought a large house for the family in Sana'a, and set up a fund paid directly to a school for her education.

But Nujood says she has been forced out of the home and has not received any of the money from her father. She also dropped out of school. She said her father had rented the first floor of the house to another family, and moved his new wife into the second. “I’ve been asked to leave and have to stay in my older brother’s cramped house. He gives me only 50 dollars a month, sometimes I get nothing.”

Shada Nasser, the human rights lawyer who took on the child’s divorce case, said she believed Nujood’s own family was victimising her because they expected her fame should have brought them fortune.

Khadije Al Salame, a Yemeni diplomat who is working to help Nujood get her life back said: “It’s good to talk about Nujood but the problem is it's too much pressure on her. She’s a little girl and as media people we should just let her go to school and continue with her life, because education is the most important thing for her.”

A foreign correspondent Judith Spiegei, who met Nujood in the Yemeni capital, said, “The house I enter is dark and small. On the bare concrete floor are some dirty mattresses and a jerry can with water. A wire without a light bulb hangs from the ceiling. I am confused. I was supposed to meet a girl rich by Yemeni standards. In the media Nujood was portrayed as a happy middle class girl, going to a private school, wanting to become a lawyer.”

Nujood told Spiegel, “I do not go to school anymore, maybe next year. I do not live in my own house anymore, because my father lives there. He used to beat me, I cannot live with him.” His third wife kicked her out of the house Nujood owns.

Nujood dreamt of becoming a lawyer, of travelling, of getting scholarships. It did not happen. But Nujood tries to see things positively: “After the book we had a house and food,” she said. Nujood is not sure whether she is 13 or 14 year old. She hopes to go back to school. About marriage, she says, “Never ever!”

(The writer is a senior Indian journalist who now lives in the US. [email protected])

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