I had planned to profile many women today. I had heard the echo of names…Maya Angelou…Rosa Parks…Susan B. Anthony…Frida Kahlo…Natalia LL…Simone de Beauvoir…women from around the world who made a difference. As I sat pondering this post, I saw a face, and I knew it was her story I had to tell. A story that somehow reflects each of these others even though she is someone from another world, and one few of them would recognize. Even so, her voice echoes through us all before we’ve ever heard her name.
I want to paint a picture for you. As I sit here with my husband leaning his head against my knee, I see a face. Her skin is brown. A scarf covers most of her hair, but what peeks out above her forehead is a lustrous walnut color.
Her lips curve into a half-moon shape as she lets a small smile brush across them. It’s a simple moment frozen in time. A photograph of a girl. What is striking about her is not the young beauty that will undoubtedly mature into something even more stunning. It’s not the half-moon smile.
It’s her eyes. They are a deep, dark brown. They are lit from within with an unexpected glimmer. Those eyes know something.
Who is this girl?
Born in Yemen in 1998, at age eight her father arranged a marriage for her to a man in his mid-thirties. Though her husband was “required” to wait until she matured (started menstruating) to consummate the marriage, he didn’t wait.
At age eight, Nujood Ali was repeatedly raped and beaten by her husband. Two months into this hell, she managed to run away to the courthouse where a judge noticed her. She told him she wanted a divorce.
I can imagine his silence. I can imagine his horror as he wonders if this is a joke. In her memoir, she says that he stammered a bit asking if she was married, how she could possibly be married.
“I want a divorce.”
This judge found her a lawyer named Shada Nasser, a woman who built the first female-headed law practice in her city. By April 15, 2008, Nujood was a ten-year-old divorcee.
When I was teaching students with emotional disturbance in D.C. a couple years ago, I found Nujood’s memoir and bought it. I had all male students, and our discussions ranged far and wide. We discussed Markus Zusak‘s The Book Thief and the instances of racism, genocide, and ethnocide in the Second World War. We discussed their experiences growing up in southeast D.C. in a school that is 100% African-American in a city where the economic lines are drawn right along the racial lines. We also often discussed women. We read a few chapters of Nujood’s story aloud, and I remember the hush in the room when we came to the part of her first rape.
“That’s just wrong, Ms.” Jay said. I nodded at him. Somehow those words sum it up very well.
It is wrong. What happened to Nujood — what happens still to young girls around the world forced into being women before their bodies even say they’re ready — it is wrong. It rips open the fabric of souls, tears at the weaves of human decency and dignity.
Here is what amazes me: that young girl, torn from school (which she loved) and forced into marriage, beaten by her husband’s family and called a whore, raped by her husband — that young girl risked everything. She fled a hellish situation and made her way to a frightening, unfamiliar place and put herself into the hands of strangers. She did all that, and then she managed to speak the words.
“I want a divorce.”
What power exists in that simple declaration!
How much courage, how much inner strength would it take to do what this woman did? I call her a woman because not only was she forced into the role, but because her pure courageousness in the face of extreme adversity is what forges women. I hope for her sake that she is able to have what’s left of her childhood to be a child, but her experiences transcend childhood, and if you read her memoir, you will see that her words echo that glimmer of light within her eyes. They tell her story. They sometimes wrench your heart into a knot, but ultimately they show that even someone quite small, even the quintessential and stereotypical imagery of weakness — a little girl — can stand up.
She didn’t cry “like a little girl.” She didn’t whine “like a little girl.” She didn’t pout or stomp or huddle in a corner “like a little girl.”
She set out into a hostile world. She stood up against a hostile family and a hostile husband. She fought for her own safety when hers was the only voice on her side. She showed her mettle and said she would not stand for the invasion of her dignity — and she did all of it like a little girl. Like a strong little girl. Like a woman in a child’s body. That is the power of little girls. That is the power of women.
Nujood is just one example. Her story is moving and poignant. Around the world, in every country and city, there are women like her. Women who persevere and overcome adversity. There is a world of women.
A world of hope.
You can find Nujood Ali’s memoir titled I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced at your neighborhood bookstore. Royalties from book sales help support her family in Yemen and pay for her tuition to school. Nujood wants to be a lawyer and help end child marriages in Yemen. As Nicholas Kristof, op-ed writer for the New York Times put it, “…little girls like Nujood may prove more effective than missiles at defeating terrorists.”
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