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YEMEN: The child bride who sought a divorce and dared to dream big

June 12, 2008 |  7:50 am

Nujood1

Borzou2 By Borzou Daragahi in Sana, Yemen

The scuttlebutt among the reporters in the Yemeni capital was that nobody walks out of 10-year-old Nujood Ali’s house without giving her a donation.

And I would find out that was correct.

But I had assumed that she and her family were trying to capitalize on her fame as Yemen’s first preadolescent divorcee — a story told Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times — by trying to charge journalists money for interviews.

And I was very wrong about that.

When we arrived near her house, Nujood herself greeted us on the main avenue, hopped into our car and helped us navigate her sewage-infested shantytown until we reached the $75-a-month house her family rented.

We were all shocked by how steady and self-possessed she appeared. After all, just months earlier she had been forced into a marriage with a man three times her age and beaten until she submitted to his sexual advances until the day she worked up the courage to walk into a courthouse by herself and demand a divorce.

Childbride8_3As the interview commenced, it became obvious that she ran this household.

While talking, she would curl up with her younger sister, Haifa, or hold nieces and nephews roaming around the house.

Both her mother and father, the ones who had given her away against her will, bowed to her. They declined to enter the living room to sit down unless she indicated it was OK.

It became clear that Nujood’s family, though living on the outskirts of a modernizing metropolis of 3 million people, came from a world very different than mine.

At one point, I asked Nujood’s mother to clear up the question of her daughter’s age. Some reports had her at 8 years old.

“She’s 10,” the mother said.

“What was her birthday?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “There were no birth certificates in our village.”

“So how do you know she’s 10?” I asked.

“Well, we moved to Sana when she was 3, and that was seven years ago,” she said.

Nujood's roots in the far-flung villages of northern Yemen made her tale all the more extraordinary to us. Most of the 10-year-olds I know just want to play Nintendo. Nujood spoke of her dream to one day finish her education, become a human rights lawyer and defend the rights of little girls like herself.

"I will tell girls that I was under pressure when I got married," she said. "I'll tell them not to marry until after your education, and marry the person you like."

Once our visit ended, we began leaving the house. Nujood didn’t even give the slightest hint that she expected compensation for agreeing to the interview. She was full of grace and polite words as she walked us out to the street.

But we all found ourselves reflexively reaching for our wallets and stuffing bills into Nujood's hands, careful to keep away from the eyes of her father, who might try to take the money.

One colleague with us said she was saddened not to pick up the scent of food cooking at Nujood's as lunchtime arrived. She couldn’t bear the thought of Nujood going hungry and gave her mother some money.

I found myself discreetly handing cash to Nujood before I entered the car. I wanted to do what little I could to help her succeed.

“Good luck, Nujood,” I told her.

Borzou Daragahi discusses this story on PRI’s “The World.”

Photos: Top, Nujood Ali, 10, stands in a room of her home near her nieces and a nephew. Bottom, Nujood smiles. Credit: Borzou Daragahi / Los Angeles Times

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