Thursday, March 04, 2010

On Nujood Ali

Nicholas Kristoff writes today about Nujood Ali, a Yemeni girl who got divorced at the age of ten, to escape a bad arranged marriage:

For Nujood, the nightmare began at age 10 when her family told her that she would be marrying a deliveryman in his 30s. Although Nujood's mother was unhappy, she did not protest. "In our country it's the men who give the orders, and the women who follow them," Nujood writes in a powerful new autobiography just published in the United States this week, "I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced."

Her new husband forced her to drop out of school (she was in the second grade) because a married woman shouldn't be a student. At her wedding, Nujood sat in the corner, her face swollen from crying.

Nujood's father asked the husband not to touch her until a year after she had had her first menstrual period. But as soon as they were married, she writes, her husband forced himself on her.

He soon began to beat her as well, the memoir says, and her new mother-in-law offered no sympathy. "Hit her even harder," the mother-in-law would tell her son.

It is harder for women than men to get a divorce granted in Yemen and Nujood's case became famous, supported by Yemeni journalists. She may be a sign for change in how arranged child marriages are seen in that country.

Nujood has returned to her parents and to school. She supports her family with her royalty income:

At first, Nujood's brothers criticized her for shaming the family. But now that Nujood is the main breadwinner, everybody sees things a bit differently. "They're very nice to her now," said Khadija al-Salami, a filmmaker who mentors Nujood and who translated for me. "They treat her like a queen."

This is something that several studies have supported: When women provide a larger amount of the financial income of a family their status improves. But what I hadn't thought about before is that the woman's ability to "shame" the family might be amenable to giving more economic power to women in general. It could help with honor killings and such if that is the case.

Nujood's story is not unfamiliar, except for the happy ending. Child brides are common in several countries and the girls themselves usually have no say over their fate. Anything that stops the practice would be welcomed.

Someone commented on this article by pointing out how common child brides have been in history and all over the world. But where they really that common? I'm not a historian but I wonder. The royalty married their children at birth sometimes, but those marriages were not consummated until much later. What did the ordinary people do?