Before her marriage, Nujood loved school—specifically math and Quran classes—and made her father promise not to pull her out to be wed. But when she was nine, her parents arranged a husband for her. Nujood was dazzled by her wedding presents: three dresses; perfume; two hairbrushes; and two hijabs, or women’s head scarves. The groom, a 30-year-old courier, gave her a $20 ring, which Nujood says he soon took back to buy clothes for himself. She tells her story sitting on a grubby mattress in one of two rooms shared by her nine family members in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. A bare bulb illuminates a clock on the wall. It’s nearly midnight, but Nujood’s beloved Haifa, nine, is still selling gum on the street corner. Their father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, a former street sweeper, has 16 children, two wives, and no job.
Two months after her wedding, Nujood returned to her family’s house to visit Haifa. When her parents left for the day, Nujood did something virtually unheard-of in Yemen: She went out by herself and took a bus and a taxi to Sana’a’s main court. All morning she waited, until a judge saw her sitting there. “I want a divorce,” Nujood told him. The story of Nujood’s audacity spread to Shada Nasser, a human rights lawyer. “I didn’t believe it,” she says. She asked why the girl needed a divorce. Nujood’s reply: “I hate the night.” Nasser agreed to take the case free of charge. “But you must smile,” she said, “and you must trust me.”
So what can American women do to help child brides? Most advocates say that schools are crucial—that educating girls is the best way to change the culture. “When you promote education, you create new roles for women,” says Gabool al-Mutawakel, general manager of the Girls World Communication Center (GWCC) in Sana’a, which offers courses in English, computers and family planning to impoverished girls. In honor of Nujood and Nasser, Glamour has chosen the GWCC to be the recipient of money raised through the 2008 Glamour Women of the Year Fund initiative; donations that readers make will help child brides and girls at risk of early marriage finish school. “Yemeni people are receptive to educated women in the workforce,” al-Mutawakel says. “When a woman can contribute, they’re encouraging.”
Nujood’s divorce reinforced her spirit. “It made me strong,” she smiles. “Now my life is sweet as candy.” Back with her family, she says she wants to be a lawyer; two foreign benefactors have agreed to pay for her school supplies and higher education. This fall, Nujood went to school for the first time since her marriage. On that day, in her brand-new uniform—a bottle-green robe and a white hijab—Nujood stood with Haifa in the sunny schoolyard, waiting for her hard-won childhood to begin again.
I hope Nujood Ali the most famous divorcee starts to enjoy her childhood again, and does great in school!