September 21, 2008 in Nation/World

Driven divorcee, 10, resumes second grade

By Delphine Minoui and Borzou Daragahi Los Angeles Times
 

Vicious circle

Only about half of Yemeni girls attend primary school. Women’s rights activists say childhood marriage is part of a vicious circle. Girls drop out of school and bear too many children, contributing to Yemen’s exploding birth rate and high illiteracy among women.

SAN`A, Yemen – Still groggy, the schoolgirl brushed her hair, struggled to pull on her socks and snuggled into her school uniform: a green gown and a white head scarf.

By the time she gathered up her books and strapped on her backpack she was smiling and enthusiastic, her nervousness eclipsed by anticipation of the first day of class.

Like children across the world, 10-year-old Nujood Ali went back to school this month after a lengthy break. But Nujood hadn’t been lazing about or playing hide-and-seek with her friends.

Instead, after she was pulled out of the second grade by her father earlier this year, she was married off to a man three times her age, who beat her and sexually abused her.

For many girls in this traditional society, where tribal custom and conservative interpretations of Islam dominate, that would have been the end of the story. But Nujood was outraged. She gathered her courage and on an aunt’s advice went to court in April. She found a lawyer and filed for divorce. A judge quickly granted it.

And on Tuesday morning, the divorcee once again became a schoolgirl.

“I’m very happy to be going back to school,” she said, waiting in her ramshackle home for her younger sister Haifa to get ready. “I’m going to study Arabic, the Quran, mathematics and drawing. I will do that with my classmates, and I will definitely make friends there.”

Nujood’s story of rebellion made her an international celebrity. Since the Los Angeles Times wrote of her in June, CNN, Elle magazine and other international media have come to this mountaintop city to chronicle her tale.

Hordes of nonprofit organizations offered to help her get back to school, some willing to pay to send her abroad or to a private academy. Some donors offered to pay to send Nujood to an expensive school while ignoring Haifa, her little sister and best friend.

In the end, Nujood opted for a small, government-run public school relatively close to her home. She would begin where she left off, starting the second grade again.

The night before she went to school, she said she dreamed of notebooks, drawings and new friends.

“When I left school, I learned how to count from one to 100,” she said. “Now, I am going to learn how to count until a million.”

Nujood said she wanted to study hard, to be able to attend university and become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, a well-known Yemeni human rights advocate who helped Nujood get her divorce.

The girl’s experience, and her ambition, have served as an inspiration to her parents, uneducated rural people who moved to the city’s outskirts a few years ago and say they married her off to protect her from the dangers of the city.

“We were never asked if we wanted to go to school when we were children,” said her father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, who has two wives and 16 children. “If we had a choice, we would have loved to study like Nujood.”

On Tuesday morning, Nujood and Haifa climbed into a yellow taxi paid for by an Italian aid group and drove through the capital’s smog-choked streets. Outside the schoolhouse, lawyer Nasser stood waiting, eager to share a day she had anticipated. It was Nasser who agreed to drop her caseload and take up Nujood’s cause after the girl showed up alone in a San`a courthouse. “I can’t believe we finally made it,” said the attorney.

They were welcomed by Njala Matri, the principal of the school.

“You are welcome here. You can feel at home,” she said, smiling at Nujood.


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