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>From The Times
October 30, 2008
The children who could be seeking divorce
As a new book lifts the lid on arranged marriages in the Middle East, more and 
more children there could be seeking divorce
Yemeni child-bride Nujoud Ali Hasan, 10, with her brothers at her parents house 
in Yemeni capital Sana'a

Yemeni child-bride Nujoud Ali Hasan, 10, with her brothers at her parents house 
in Yemeni capital Sana'a
Sonia Verma

The girl sits in the last row of the tiny courtroom, trembling and holding her 
mother's hand. When the judge finally calls up her case, she is biting her 
fingernails as her lawyer speaks.

Three weeks earlier, Reem's father had married her off to her cousin - a tall, 
gaunt man more than three times her age. She says that her new husband raped 
her three days after their wedding and beat her almost every day in the remote 
village where they lived. She tried to escape, twice by suicide, and finally by 
fleeing to her mother's house in Sana'a, where she has come to court seeking a 
divorce. Reem is 12.

When the judge, Mohammed Alqadhi, asks why he should dissolve their marriage, 
she replies with an even voice: “If I have to return to my husband I will kill 

Her case, heard earlier this summer in Yemen's capital city, is still before 
the courts but Reem's plight has emerged as a high-profile and crucial test of 
this conservative Muslim country's treatment of child brides. In May, Nujood 
Ali, a 10-year-old girl, became the first child bride to lobby Yemen's courts 
successfully for a divorce after being forced to marry a man nearly 30 years 
her senior.

Her case captured headlines around the world. In the wake of her victory, 
Yemeni judges and lawmakers vowed to stamp out the widespread practice of early 
marriage. Emboldened by Nujood's victory, a handful of other child brides have 
since stepped forward, demanding an end to marriages brokered by their families 
to win dowries or forge tribal alliances. But now the same court that awarded 
Nujood her freedom is failing to uphold the precedent set by her case. It seems 
that tribal customs still prevail over Yemen's official laws that set the age 
of marital consent at 15.

“Some extremists have complained about Nujood's case,” says Shada Nasser, the 
outspoken Yemeni lawyer who represented Nujood and now three other child 
brides, including Reem, in their quest for divorce. “They think the judges 
should not interfere with tribal life.”

Across the Middle East, marriage is seen as a rite of passage to adulthood, 
and, for women particularly, is still viewed as the gateway to independence, 
financial security and respect. But it seems that Middle Eastern women are 
beginning to find their voice. This week it emerged that a book exposing the 
matchmaking horrors visited upon one 29-year-old Egyptian pharmacist, Ghada 
Abdel Aal, by her family has become a bestseller and her blog “Wanna-b-a-bride” 
a lifeline for some of the 15 million girls who, she says “are pressurised by 
their society to get married”.

For Nujood, life is still poverty-stricken, but nevertheless she is optimistic 
about the future. I meet her and her family in their filthy two-room flat in 
the slums on the outskirts of Sanaa. She is proud of the publi- city that her 
case garnered, in part because she hopes it will pave the way for other child 
brides to seek similar justice. “I want other girls to take courage from me,” 
she says, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Her father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, 
arranged her marriage in February last year. The street sweeper was struggling 
to support his two wives and 16 children, most of whom begged on the streets. 
Nujood was the only child who attended school at the local mosque. He arranged 
for her to marry Faez Ali Thamer, a motorcycle taxi driver who promised to 
protect her in exchange for her hand.

“I did it for her own wellbeing,” Ahdal tells me, crouched on a mattress on the 
dusty floor of the room where his whole family sleeps. Nujood was terrified to 
leave her parents' house, but she believed them when they told her marriage 
meant that she would be able to finish school and visit her family whenever she 

Her parents claim that they had agreed to the marriage on the condition that 
Thamer would wait until Nujood passed puberty before he had sex with her. 
Nujood said she didn't know what sex was until her wedding night, when her 
husband dragged her on to his mattress. She managed to fend him off that first 
night, but on the third night he raped her. “He made me sleep with him every 
night after that. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I was so ashamed to 
remove my clothing.”

She says his family beat her because she couldn't keep up with her chores of 
fetching firewood and cooking bread on a heavy iron pan. School was out of the 
question. “I was begging to return to my family's house. I was so lonely and 
cried every day,” she says.

A week after she married, she convinced her husband to take her to Sanaa to 
visit her family. Out of his earshot, she told them of the abuse she suffered. 
Without the cash or clout to take his daughter back, her father said she would 
simply have to endure it. Later that night, an aunt took her aside and told her 
that her only hope was to seek a divorce. A few days later, when her parents 
were away, she took the money they had given her to buy breakfast for her 
siblings and boarded a bus for the courthouse, on the other side of town.

She waited on a bench outside the judge's office until he emerged from the 
courtroom. When she told him that she wanted a divorce he was shocked. “I said, 
‘You are married? I don't believe it',” recalls Alqadhi. He sent the police to 
arrest her father and husband and threw them in jail. The judge took Nujood 
into protective custody, in his own home. The easiest way for her to end her 
marriage was to have it annulled and, for that, her husband was entitled to 
financial compensation. He was demanding a sum of £125 - an absolute fortune 
for Nujood's family. Nasser agreed to take on Nujood's case free of charge and 
paid Thamer out of her own pocket.

In the wake of Nujood's case, an influential group of Yemeni lawmakers has 
lobbied to raise the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 for both men and 
women. Nujood has now enrolled in school. She has just finished year 2 and 
dreams of becoming a lawyer or a journalist. “I will never marry again,” she 
says. Her family has received donations from sympathisers around the world, 
transforming her from a street beggar into a minor celebrity with her own 
mobile phone and a possible movie deal.

For Reem, however, the future is more uncertain. Back at the courthouse, it is 
unclear whether the precedent set by Nujood will hold. Alqadhi granted her a 
divorce, even though Yemeni law technically protected her husband from 
prosecution. When Nasser presented the case of 12-year-old Reem, the judge 
seemed more reticent. “This case is different,” he tells me. “She is older and 
has married into her family. I don't want to just end the marriage, I want to 
solve the problem.” It was here that, earlier in the day, he had tried in vain 
to mediate a discussion between Reem, her parents and her husband. Her husband 
stomped out. Reem left in tears. Her mother and father had a shouting match. 
Her father says he arranged her marriage to protect Reem from the influence of 
her mother, from whom he is separated, and whom he accuses of prostitution. Her 
mother argues that he married her to avoid paying child support.

Alqadhi later told Nasser that he would postpone his ruling until Reem turned 
15, ironically the legal age of consent for marriage, when she could make a 
mature decision about divorce. Until then, she has been ordered to live with 
her maternal grandfather. “I came here because I thought this man would help 
me, but I am leaving with nothing,” says Reem, twisting the sleeves of her 
black abaya. “I wish I was like Nujood.”

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