SAN'A, YEMEN: June 30, 2008. The little girl was waist-high, so small that the lawyers, clerks and judges hurrying through the courthouse almost missed her on June 21, 2008.
As lunchtime arrived and the crowds of noisy men and women cleared away, a curious judge asked her what she was doing sitting alone on a bench.
"I came to get a divorce," 10-year-old Nujood Ali told the jurist.
Her impoverished parents had married her off to a man more than three times her age, who beat her and forced her to have sex, she explained. When she told her father and mother that she wanted out of the marriage, they refused to help. So an aunt provided her with bus money to travel to court and seek a divorce.
Within days of that April 2 encounter, Nujood's tale and the plight of child brides in Yemen made international headlines. And thanks to the efforts of human rights lawyer Shada Nasser, the girl at the center of the story has begun to overcome her trauma and dream of a better life.
Yemeni law sets the age of consent at 15. But tribal customs and interpretations of Islam often trump the law in this country of 23 million. A 2006 study conducted by Sana'a University reported that 52 percent of girls were married by age 18.
Publicity surrounding Nujood's case prompted calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18 for both men and women. Yemen's conservative lawmakers refused to take it up. But the case sparked public discussion. Several more child brides came forward, including a girl who recently sought a divorce in the southern Yemeni city of Ibb.
"This case opened the door," said Nasser.
Focusing on education
Nujood says that at first, she felt ashamed about what had happened to her. "But I passed through that," she said.
"All I want now is to finish my education," she added. "I want to be a lawyer."
Nujood's unemployed father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, has two wives and 16 children. He is among the many tribal Yemenis who migrated to the capital over the last decades looking for work. Instead, he found misery.
He arranged to have Nujood married in February to Faez Ali Thamer, a 30-something motorcycle deliveryman from his native province, Hajja.
Nujood's parents said they were trying to do what was best for their daughter and didn't even receive a dowry, a claim many Yemenis don't believe. The parents say the groom had promised he wouldn't have sex with her until she reached puberty.
"We asked him to raise her," said Shu'aieh, the girl's mother.
The groom has disputed that claim.
Ahdal, in his mid-40s, said he wanted Nujood to avoid the fate of two of his older sisters. One was kidnapped by a rival clan and another wound up in jail for trying to protect her, an example of intertribal disputes that bedevil Yemen.
"I was trying to protect her," Ahdal said during an interview inside his family's flat on the capital's outskirts.
Nujood looked forward to getting married, not understanding what it really meant. Besides being a pre-adolescent bride, she is a fairly typical little girl. She likes playing hide-and-seek and tug-of-war with her friends and siblings. Her favorite colors are red and yellow, she said, and her favorite flavors are chocolate and coconut. She loves dogs and cats and dreams of being a turtle so she could swim in the sea.
He didn't deny it
The lawyers and judges had no idea how to handle her case. Nujood languished in the courthouse for days until a middle-aged woman, the only one in the courthouse without an Islamic headdress covering her face, approached them.
"Are you Nujood?" asked lawyer Shada Nasser, among Yemen's leading women's rights activists. "Are you the one asking for divorce?"
She was, Nujood replied.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Nasser said. The girl reminded her of her own daughter, Lamia, 8 years old.
Nasser went to the cell where Thamer, the husband, was being held, and was shocked at the age difference between the two. "Why did you sleep with her?" she demanded. "She's a little girl."
He didn't deny it, Nasser recalled. Instead he complained that Nujood's father had said she was much taller and better looking than she really was.
Nasser vowed to Nujood that she would take her case without pay and that she would take care of her. She took her to her upscale home and offered to let her stay there.
Outraged, Nasser also called her contacts at the Yemen Times, the country's English-language newspaper. The story of the brave little girl who went to court on her own to stand up for her rights captivated the country. By the time a sympathetic judge agreed to hear her case several weeks later, media packed into the courtroom.
Verbally, Judge Mohammed Ghadi was merciless to the husband.
"You could not find another woman to marry in all of Yemen?" he demanded.
But legally, there was little he could do. No provision in Yemeni law provides for enforcement of sexual abuse charges within a marriage. Not only did the husband and father go free, but Thamer demanded $250 in order to agree to a divorce. A sympathetic lawyer donated the cash.
When the controversy died down, Nujood insisted on going back to live with her parents again, most likely because she is very close to her sister Haifa, 8. Her father promised her that he would not marry off her or any of her sisters.
The girl has refused to see a psychologist or a gynecologist. She says she doesn't like doctors.
And besides, she says, the experience has made her stronger and wiser.
She says she's had enough of marriage and domestic life, and looks forward to beginning the third grade and pursuing dreams she never knew she had.
"I want to defend oppressed people," she says. "I want to be like Shada. I want to be an example for all the other girls."