Twelve-year-old Sally Sabahi, far right, lives with her family in a single room
tucked down a back alley of Old Sanaa. Her father, far left, sells chili mix in
the market for a dollar or two a day. Her mother, second from right, was
married at 12, enduring five years of beatings before she finally divorced.
[Credit: Hugh Macleod]
"My parents called for me to come from the yard," said Sally, explaining how
she got married aged 10 to her 25-year-old first cousin. "They told me Take a
deep breath and asked How about getting married Sally? So, I replied: Yes, but
will you give me a dress, and candy and toys and stuff like that? They
answered: Yes. They promised to give me everything." [Credit: Annasofie
Her father, Mabkhout as Sabahi, left, earned 200,000 Yemeni Rial, around
$1,000, for agreeing to the marriage to Nabil. "Nabil promised he would wait
for her until she was grown up," said Mabkhout. "But the people in Hajja [where
Nabil is from] kept telling him Sally is grown up and ready to sleep with him
and that she does not because her parents told her not to." [Credit: Annasofie
A picture of 10-year-old Sally trying on her wedding dress. Beaten, drugged and
raped, Sally won a divorce from Nabil recently after her story made headlines
in local media and became the focus of a national debate that has polarised
Yemeni society. [Credit: Hugh Macleod]
Nojoud Mohammed Ali al-Ahdal, was nine years old when she was married to a
30-year-old man she had never met. "I got scared and used to run away and he
would chase me. I did not think I was a wife," said Najoud. After taking a taxi
to court and finding a lawyer, Shada Nasser, to represent her Nojoud became the
first child bride in Yemen to successfully divorce. [Credit: Annasofie Flamand]
Several hundred women protested against a proposed legal minimum age for
marriage."In the case of Nojoud it was her father who was wrong. Why not go and
see the women who are happy?" asked one demonstrator, Zeinab as-Sumaidar, a
secretary at Iman University. [Credit: Hugh Macleod]
Sheikh Mohammed al-Hazmi inspects the fatwa, or religious ruling, he helped
author which forbids any Yemeni from supporting a minimum age for marriage.
[Credit: Hugh Macleod]
Lawyer Shada Nasser, centre, went to a neighbourhood of Sanaa, to file the
initial case for divorce. But it would require Nabil to travel to Sanaa from
Hajja. If Nabil did not agree to the divorce the case would have to be heard in
Hajja. "The judge may look more favourably at their own kinsmen," said Nasser.
"Many judges are governed by arcane views of women." [Credit: Annasofie
A clerk of the court counts the 200,000 Yemeni Rial dowry which had to be paid
back to Nabil in order for Sally to divorce him. An American-Turkish woman
offered to pay $700 after hearing about the case. The remaining $300 was
donated by local Yemeni women. The divorce papers were signed by Judge Mansour
Ali in the presence of Sally, her lawyer and Nabil. [Credit: Hugh Macleod]
Nabil drew laughter from those gathered when he urged men to consider the "age,
brain and that they are not crazy" of any potential wife. He said: "I just came
and married her. I did not think it was a problem because I did not know her
exact age." For Sally, the moment was about looking forward. "I was feeling
there was a black cloud hanging over my head. Today I feel so free." [Credit:
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By Hugh Macleod
Sally as-Sabahi used to love playing the make-believe marriage game with her
brothers and sisters.
For a little girl living in a single room down a back alley of Old Sanaa,
imagining the new wedding clothes, make-up and party for her school friends was
a thrilling way to escape the daily grind of poverty.
So when her mother showed her the real-life snow white dress and sparkling
jewellery she promised would be hers, 10-year-old Sally had no problem agreeing
to marry the man her parents had chosen: Nabil, her 25-year-old first cousin,
for whom Sally would be a second marriage.
Sally recently won a divorce from Nabil after her story made headline news in
local media and became the focus of a national debate that has polarised Yemeni
"I don't call it marriage, I call it rape," said Shada Nasser, a lawyer who has
worked on several child marriage cases.
Nojoud Ali al-Ahdal, who was herself raped and beaten by her 30-year-old
husband when she was nine years old, was the first of only three Yemeni child
brides to win a divorce. But the practice of child marriage affects millions in
The International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that just under
half of all girls in Yemen are married before they are 18 - classified as
underage by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Yemen is a
With no legal minimum age for marriage, a study by Sanaa University found that
in some of Yemen's regions half of all girls are married before the age of 15.
'Robbed of a childhood'
"The greatest problem facing Yemeni women today is child marriages," said Wafa
Ali of the Yemeni Women's Union. "These early marriages rob the girl of the
right to a normal childhood and education. The girls are forced to have
children before their bodies are fully grown."
Many girls suffer repeated miscarriages or end up with complications brought on
by the trauma of forced sex, said Dr Arwa Elrabee, a leading gynaecologist.
In April a local women's rights group reported that 12-year-old bride Elham
Shuee had died three days after marrying a man in his 20s. The girl suffered a
rupture of the womb caused by sex, said Majed al-Mathhaji, a spokesman for the
Sisters Arab Forum.
Last September, another 12-year-old, Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, bled to death
during three days of child birth - her body, doctors said afterwards, was
simply too small to cope.
Sally remembers the first night Nabil forced himself on her. "At first, I felt
safe. I mean I didn't know what was going on, so how could I be scared? I
started bleeding. It hurt. I was crying and shouting and hated myself. Since
that I have seen him like death."
One evening, sick of Sally's refusal to sleep with Nabil again, her aunt tied
her to the bed. Eventually Sally's parents were called.
At stake was the $1,000 dowry Nabil's family had paid to Sally's father.
Earning little over $2 a day selling chilies in the market of Old Sanaa,
Mabkhout as-Sabahi had spent the money on rent and paying off debts. If Sally
refused to live up to her marital obligations Nabil could ask for his money
back and Mabkhout could not pay.
Stirring a cup of tea for his daughter Mabkhout slipped a powerful sleeping
pill into it and gave the mug to Sally to drink.
"We wanted to prove we were not encouraging Sally to refuse her husband," said
But the single pill was not strong enough, so a few days later Mabkhout used
"He forced me to drink it," said Sally. "I drank it all. He was hitting me. I
was so dizzy."
Behind her black niqab, tears well up in the eyes of Sally's mother, Nouria: "I
never spoke with my daughters about sex. I felt ashamed. I trusted my sister
would care for her like a daughter."
Before unification in 1990 Yemeni law set the minimum age for marriage at 17.
But with the victory of the north over the south that was reduced to 15.
Nine years later amendments to civil status laws abolished a minimum age
Last year a majority of MPs voted to re-establish a minimum age of 17, but the
bill was rejected by the Islamic Sharia Codification Committee.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Hazmi has led the opposition to a minimum age and issued a
fatwa, or religious decree, signed by 140 of Yemen's leading religious
authorities, warning any Yemeni against supporting the "un-Islamic" attempt to
restrict the age of marriage.
"We view a child as an adult when she reaches puberty, not when she is 18 as
you do in the West," he said in an interview in the Rahman Mosque where he
"In the West you have this freedom slogan. Satellite channels make the young
sexually aroused. If they have sex and are not married they commit adultery and
this is forbidden in Islam. So we allow them to marry and not to commit a
Flash bulbs light up the otherwise gloomy office of the judge.
A plump thumb is dipped into the dark ink and carefully lowered onto the paper
next to the curving Arabic letters that spell out her name.
Behind her niqab, Sally's eyes narrow in a smile as the judge studies the
document; two thumb prints next to each other, the last proximity of a marriage
that was anything but close.
"I was feeling this morning there was a black cloud hanging over my head," said
Sally, leaving the judge's office after her historical divorce. "Today I feel
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