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COLUMN ONE

Yemeni bride, 10, says I won't

The girl was married off to a man in his 30s who abused her. She went to court, got a lawyer and broke free.

June 11, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

Still, the lawyers and judges had no idea how to handle her case. Nujood and her uncle languished in the courthouse for days until a middle-aged woman, the only one in the courthouse without an Islamic headdress covering her face, approached them.

"Are you Nujood?" asked Nasser, the lawyer, among Yemen's leading women's rights activists. "Are you the one asking for divorce?"

She was, Nujood replied.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," Nasser says. The girl reminded her of her own daughter, Lamia, 8.

Nasser went to the cell where Thamer, the husband, was being held, and was shocked by the age difference between the two. "Why did you sleep with her?" she demanded. "She's a little girl."

He didn't deny it, Nasser recalls. Instead he complained that Nujood's father had said she was much taller and better looking than she really was.

Nasser vowed to Nujood that she would take her case without pay and that she would take care of her. She took her to her upscale home and offered to let her stay there.

Outraged, Nasser also called her contacts at the Yemen Times, the country's English-language newspaper. The story of the brave little girl who went to court on her own to stand up for her rights captivated the country. News agencies picked up the story and sent it around the world.

When a sympathetic judge agreed to hear her case several weeks later, reporters packed the courtroom.

Verbally, Judge Mohammed Ghadi was merciless to the husband.

"You could not find another woman to marry in all of Yemen?" he demanded.

But legally, there was little he could do. No provision in Yemeni law provides for prosecution on sexual abuse charges within a marriage. Not only did the husband and father go free, but Thamer demanded $250, the equivalent of four months' salary for a poor Yemeni, to agree to a divorce.

A sympathetic lawyer donated the cash.

Nujood was elated. "She was smiling," Nasser recalls. "She said, 'I want chocolate. I want pears, cake and toys.' "

Nasser bought her some new clothes. Donations began pouring in, with several wealthy Europeans offering to pay for her education. One newspaper held a big party for her. A Yemeni journalist gave her a cellphone.

When the controversy died down, Nujood insisted on going back to live with her parents, most likely because she is very close to her sister Haifa, 8. Her father promised that he would not marry off Nujood or any of her sisters.

The girl has refused to see a psychologist or a gynecologist. She says she doesn't like doctors. And besides, she says, the experience has made her stronger and wiser.

She says she's had enough of marriage and domestic life, and looks forward to beginning third grade and pursuing dreams she never knew she had.

"I want to defend oppressed people," she says. "I want to be like Shada. I want to be an example for all the other girls."

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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