Saturday, December 28, 2013

Yemen, Book 2

Yemen, Book 2

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

After having started this reading challenge almost two years ago, I am only now starting to really feel like I am able to pick diverse, relatively unbiased literature with current information that I will be able to bring into any academic program (that is when I finally choose my field of study and area of specialization in graduate school.) It has taken me this long to get my act together and for me to develop the practice of choosing books. At first, I chose books based on the following qualifications: a good, solid overview (as I would read one book per country); non-fiction and preferably not a guide book; able to be bought on Amazon for less than $10; and less than 250 pages.

Now, I have started reading multiple books for one country based on my interest level – recognizing that it is really impossible for just one book to provide me with a good understanding of issues facing a country. I no longer pay any attention whatsoever to the price or the page number, whether they are low or high. In other words, I am more than willing to sacrifice my time and money for interesting, engaging, and accurate information. I also have started placing a great deal of importance on the reviews and recommendations of authors, academics, and public figures who I admire – as well as on the notes, bibliography, and index section. It is now infrequent that I buy and read a book for my reading challenge where I don’t put it down thinking, “Wow! That’s amazing.” 

One of my disappointments with all of the books that I chose about the Middle East was how little of the woman’s voice my selection represented. As I continue with this challenge and make my future selections, I recognize that this voice is a very important one in the international dialogue. However, on a personal note, as a female, when I read the experiences and perspectives of women from other parts of the world (instead of just a man’s re-telling of their stories), it takes my breath away. It reminds me that in an alternate reality, I could have been born that woman – subject to the same social and cultural influences she is faced with every day; we could have shared the same experiences and the same fate. I feel lucky to have been born into the United States, into a family where I want for nothing and where my achievement in education and in a career is not only encouraged, but expected. 

It was with this sentiment that I read Nujood Ali’s memoir, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, written with the help of journalist Delphine Minoui. The setting is an incredibly important factor in this book – the country of Yemen. Located on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is one of the least developed countries in the world. This is, in part, due to the conflict which has permeated throughout the country’s modern history. Up until 1990, Yemen was actually divided into two separate countries: North and South Yemen (which was socialist and a satellite state of the Soviet Union.) Since then, the country has been plagued by Civil War, secessionist movements, and now the threat of Al Qaeda.
It was in this politically tumultuous atmosphere that Nujood was born in the countryside. She was one of 16 children that her mother bore. However, her father also had a second wife with whom he had 5 more children. When a community clash led the entire family to move to the capital city of Sana’a, Nujood’s father fell into financial troubles. He developed a habit for chewing addictive khat and, as a result, his wives and children were forced to beg on the streets. Nujood attended a primary school but was forced to leave at the age of 9 to marry a man over three times her age from her village, who raped and beat her. When she was allowed to return to her parents’ house, she did not receive their support to leave her husband. Her father exclaimed that his decision was based on honor:
“If you divorce your husband, my brothers and cousins will kill me! Sharaf, honor, comes first. Honor! Do you understand?”

No, I didn’t understand, and I couldn’t understand. Not only was he hurting me, but my family, my own family, was defending him. All that for a question of – what was it? Honor. But this word everyone kept using, exactly what did it mean? I was dumbfounded. (page 97)

At this point in time Nujood took matters into her own hands and went by herself (quite a feat in a conservative country like Yemen) to the courthouse where she tenaciously asked to see a judge to request a divorce. The book shares the trial and the aftermath of Nujood’s courage, which at the time of printing, had already inspired other young girls to request divorces from their husbands. More than half of all Yemeni girls marry before the age of eighteen but many like Nujood are forced into marriages even sooner. This is a very relevant topic – with an eight-year-old Yemeni girl dying from internal bleeding earlier this year on her wedding night. In the Epilogue, Delhine Minoui notes that “In Yemen, many factors drive fathers to marry off their daughters before they reach puberty. Husnia al-Kadri reminds us that ‘poverty, local customs, and a lack of education play a role.’ Family honor, the fear of adultery, the settling of scores between rival tribes - the reasons cited by parents are many and various. Out in the countryside, adds al-Kadri, there is even a tribal proverb: ‘To guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine-year-old girl.” (page 172)

I was very inspired by the pluck of young Nujood to do the unthinkable at the age of 10 – all because she realized that it was the right thing for her to do – and would recommend her book to anyone. Even more, I found myself struck by two other factors: (1) The Yemeni Justice System: Nujood went to the courthouse and requested to see a judge. Not only did she get an audience with him, but found herself the recipient of support and encouragement from many in the legal system. In short, the justice system sought to enforce justice and granted Nujood her divorce. After reading so many books about countries where the justice system is corrupt, I found myself pleasantly surprised and even encouraged to read about this case in Yemen. (2) The Lack of Helpful Institutions for Women: Despite winning her divorce, there were no institutions to help Nujood or indeed any young girl who had experienced harm at the hands of her family. In short, she was forced to go back to live at her parents’ house. Although Nujood seemed happy surrounded by her sisters, there is no doubt that there was tension and that there will continue to be tension between her and her father, as well as between her and her brothers. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 


  1. Hello Emily: I was fascinated to read your review of this powerful story which I had read three years ago. I was born in Yemen, but came to Canada 40+ years ago. In fact I have met such married female children in my travels in Yemen. It is scandalous, but a fact of life in Yemen. Even I found that the story gave me goosebumps. 3 yrs ago I retired as prof of med, and since have written 2 novels, strongly in defense of Yemeni women: I would also be happy to mail u copies. Let's talk at

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