As a journalist, you’ve been covering Iran and the Middle East since 1997. How did you become connected with Nujood Ali? Do you remember your reaction when you first heard about her story?
When I first heard and read about Nujood’s story in an article written by the Yemen Times, a local newspaper, I could not believe it. How could such a young girl be married? In fact, child brides are common in several countries: Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia…but usually, people don’t talk about it. Women feel ashamed to complain about it. They are scared to oppose the choice of their parents. In such countries, driven by a patriarchal culture, men often have the last word. Therefore, these stories don’t make the headlines.
And then, one day, this little girl, Nujood, decided to break a taboo. She was only 10, maybe less. She held her breath and escaped to the court on her own. And, even more amazing, she succeeded in her fight for freedom. She was eventually granted a divorce, thanks to her lawyer, Shada Nasser, and many local non-governmental groups despite critics, threats and pressure. She is a real little hero. When I met her, in Sanaa in June 2008, she was just recovering from her divorce two months ago. We sat together in her parents’ house. She told me her story. She looked like a baby doll. And yet she sounded so mature while describing her ordeal. I decided to write an article about her for my newspaper, Le Figaro. Then came the project of a book about Nujood, that would both raise awareness about child brides and also help her in her future; most of the royalties from the book are saved for her.
You write poignantly about Nujood’s duality; she is a typical little girl who loves candy and playing with her brothers and sisters but who was also essentially forced into a very grown-up role due to her situation. What challenges did this dichotomy present to you when trying to talk to Nujood and tell her story?
Working on this book was a unique and challenging experience. As a journalist covering the Middle East, I have reported on many difficult situations. In Iraq, I have interviewed widows of men killed by death squads. In Iran, I have met female dissidents locked up in jail, in solitary confinement for several months. In Afghanistan, I have shared tales of female students who stopped going to school after it was attacked by presumed terrorists. But interviewing and listening to Nujood was the most challenging project.
Despite her bravery and determination—which may make us think that she is more of an adult—she is still a little girl. She loves playing hide and sick, watching Tom and Jerry (dubbed in Arabic), eating chocolate… During my several trips to Sanaa, I tried to adapt as much as possible to her daily routine. As you can imagine, we never sat face to face, like in a real interview, with her talking and me taking notes. No, our conversations were more improvised. Some days, we would only talk for 20 minutes, and the rest of the time we would go and play on the swings in the park. We also spent a lot of time drawing, and playing with her other sisters and brothers. It was very important to respect her rhythm. I always carried a little recorder. Sometimes, I also took photos and videos.
There were some topics that were very hard for her to talk about. Whenever she mentioned her husband, her face darkened. She referred to him as the “monster.” I never asked questions about their first night together. I let her tell me what she wanted, in her own words. I did my best not to betray her thoughts and feelings.
I also met all the protagonists of her story, in order to check facts. Together, we went to meet the judges, the lawyers, and the Yemeni journalist who wrote about her the first time. We traveled to her village. We spent a lot of time with her parents and family. My last trip was during Ramadan time. Often, I would stop by the local market to buy chicken, rice and tomatoes, and we would cook and break the fast all together at night. I also met the second wife of her dad, who advised her to escape to the court. The only person I did not meet was Nujood’s ex-husband. He was apparently in hiding.
My level of Arabic is very basic. So I was lucky to have a female translator, Eman, who is an amazing lady. She has kids herself, she knew the local culture. She was very helpful in telling me how to approach the family, for instance. I also got in touch with some local TV journalists who had filmed the court proceedings. I watched hours of footage, in order to reproduce the accurate dialogues of this important scene.
Writing her story was also a challenge. I had to put myself in her shoes since the book is written as a first person account. So, for instance, when I went to the court, I sat on the floor in order to be on the same level as Nujood, and to experience things from a child’s perspective: the crowd, the grown up people running here and there, the big stairs to enter the court room. I remember re-reading The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry several times, since it’s written in a child’s voice. I hope I did not betray Nujood’s story. When she is a grown-up, she will be more than welcome to make an updated version.
After Nujood won the Glamour Woman of the Year Award in 2008, and her story began to travel the world, she and her family weren’t prepared for the overwhelming attention from the press, or for the often negative reactions from their community. Being so close to the situation, can you talk a bit about the effect this had on Nujood? What are her relationships with her family like, particularly her mother and father, in the aftermath of the case?
Being overwhelmed by the press was not easy for Nujood. Many times, her dad used it as a trick to make some money. He tried to sell her to the press as he had sold her to her husband. Since he is jobless, he was negotiating interviews with big international television stations. But instead of using the money for his daughter’s education, he would spend it on buying “qat” (a type of tobacco stimulant) for instance. Sadly, many unscrupulous journalists, eager to report on Nujood’s story, fell into the trap, without worrying about the consequences. Some of them were very pushy, trying to get a pseudo scoop in making her talk about very intimate issues. It was very painful for her, as she told me once. But since there is no shelter for runaway girls in Yemen, she must live with her family.
So that’s when the second challenge of the book arose (which ended up being more difficult than the first one). Once the book published in France (in January 2009, and then in 20 different languages all over the world, including the US), I had to make sure the money would really benefit Nujood and that her parents would respect her will to go back to school. It took a long time to set up a sound legal process. First, we opened a bank account for her in Yemen. But since she is a minor, her father had the ultimate control. Eventually, though, thanks to the help of different lawyers, we opened a safe bank account for Nujood in France. Most of the money will be saved until she is grown. We also registered her in a private school with one of her little sisters, Haifa. The school was paid for directly from that bank account, as was a new family house, next to the school. On the ground floor of the house, there is a grocery shop, where the dad and brothers can now work. Nujood has actually gained respect in her family since she is now the breadwinner. It took a long time, but we ended up reaching our goal: helping Nujood and make sure she is happy—although she still sometimes skips school.…
In February 2009, the Yemeni parliament finally passed a new law raising the legal age of consent for marriage to seventeen for both boys and girls. However, it is still awaiting Yemen’s president to put it into effect. It’s been reported that Yemen’s top cleric opposes the law—and that his approval is necessary to pass it. Given his conservatism, do you think that the law will actually be implemented? Even if the law isn’t passed, do you think that Nujood’s case will ultimately help prevent other similar cases?
The Sharia committee of the parliament opposes the law since it considers it anti-Islamic and pro-western. But instead of entering a religious debate, Yemeni women activists concentrate their fight on the dangerous consequences of being a child bride: dropping out of school, dying during their first sexual intercourse (which happened recently in a small village), miscarriage, or dying during childbirth. These women are still hopeful for possible change. But it may take time. For them, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Activists also insist that the law is not enough. Whether it is finally passed or not, they have to work hard on awareness campaigns: organizing workshops in villages, talking with women and men. Developing education is a key issue, especially in a country where most of the women are illiterate.
In regard to the question above, many nongovernmental organizations are trying to promote the law. We understand that Nujood has taken part in some related rallies. Does she fear she will be persecuted for her participation? Is she optimistic about the future of girls’ and women’s rights in Yemen?
Nujood, indeed, took part in some demonstrations. Somehow, the international media attention—as well as the book—protect her. She is a well-known figure now. Nobody would dare persecute or threaten her. When I talk to her on the phone—usually once a week—she tells me that she feels concerned about other girls’ situations. She says: “I don’t want them to suffer like me.” She dreams of becoming a lawyer to help them in the future. Also, her story has inspired three other child brides who asked for divorce—and got it—Reem, Arwa, Sally. She says that she feels close to them. Sometimes she visits them. I think it’s good for them to talk together, because they understand each other. You know, Yemen is a very traditional country, and those young divorcées are suffering from how society looks at them. It’s even hard for them to share their problems with their own sisters.
Speaking of persecution, Nujood’s lawyer, Shada Nasser, has been accused of promoting a negative image of Yemen—and has been threatened as a result. How closely did you work with Shada while writing this book, and are you still in touch with her? Why do you think Shada was able to win this case? Is she currently involved in representing other girls like Nujood in the Middle East?
Shada Nasser is a very devoted lawyer who spent a lot of time fighting—for free—for Nujood. Without her, Nujood may not have succeeded. Shada called up the local press, she involved local NGO’s. The day of the trial, the court was packed! Despite pressure and threats, she always kept on doing her job—because she believes in it. Because she dreams for a better life for women in Yemen, a better life for her own kids too. I really admire her. I always call her the “Shirin Ebadi” of Yemen. We became very close friends. I recently had dinner with her in Beirut—she was invited there to talk on a TV show about child brides. Over dinner, she told me about other cases she followed, including Sally, the last child bride she managed to help. I could see a big smile on her face. The kind of smile that tells you: yes, it’s worth fighting! You know, sadly, many opportunists started using Nujood’s story to promote themselves, pretending that they saved her. But Shada is the only one who saved her.
Did you ever feel threatened or in danger during the course of writing this book?
No, I did not. Whenever I travel in a different country, I keep a low profile and try to adapt to the local culture. After living for more than 12 years in the Middle East, I realized that many times, we, the journalists, can be the ones to provoke threats against us. The key is to travel with a virgin mind, to put aside our stereotypes and to listen carefully to the people we are talking with—even if we disagree with them. One way to be accepted by the locals is to pay attention to our looks, to not stand out. I always dress humbly.
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Sanaa: I bought a local abbaya (a long black dress) and a black scarf, that I wore when I traveled to villages. Of course, if you wear Ray Ban sunglasses and a tight t-shirt, you may stir anger. What’s important, in such situations, is always to remember that if you want to do your job as a journalist, avoid becoming the main topic of your reporting.
It’s reported that Nujood is back in school. Is she still intent on pursuing a law degree, and fighting against injustices toward girls and women in the Middle East?
Yes, her dream is to become a lawyer.
What was your best and worst moment while researching and writing this book?
I think my worst moment was also my best moment. It was when I first sat with Nujood’s dad to tell him: “I want to write a book about your daughter.” It was not easy. First, he didn’t want to listen to me. I had to win his confidence. It took awhile. In his mind, he was certainly wondering why a lady journalist cared about Nujood’s divorce. He was thinking that I came to bring more “shame” to the family, to destroy the “honor” of his family.
I sat on the floor and I started talking with the mum. The dad was sitting by the door, listening carefully, but not talking. I explained that I also wanted to listen to his point of view, to understand why he married Nujood off. Indeed, the reasons happened to be more than local tradition. He agreed to her marriage because he was poor, and also because he thought he would protect Nujood, since one of his eldest daughters had been raped.
He finally came and sat with us. The day I brought the book contract to be signed (he has to sign it since Nujood is a minor), he told me: “I don’t know how to write.” Then, Eman (my translator) and I taught him how to write his name. He became very excited about it. He was trying his best to put down his initials on a piece of paper. He started being more relaxed. Eventually, he started laughing. When he finished filling up the papers, he said: “That’s it? No more?” He liked the experience and wanted to keep on writing.
In the meantime, all the kids (he has 16 children) gathered around us and wanted to learn how to writ too. It became like a game. The next day, we came back with bags full of notebooks and pencils for everyone. Nujood’s dad told me: “I wish I had the chance to go to school. Maybe I would have been a different man.” That day, I understood more than ever: education is the best weapon against violence, ideology and violation of human rights. And sometimes it serves the purpose of some rulers to keep their society uneducated.
Were you surprised by the book’s overwhelming international success? Have most international readers had similar responses to Nujood’s story, or are there interesting differences in their responses by country or region?
Frankly, I was not expecting such a success. I think that what people mostly enjoyed in Nujood’s story is that there is a message of hope at the end of her terrible tragedy. Sometimes, books are like mirrors. I met women in the Middle East, but also in France or Spain who had faced other kinds of problems in their life—maybe much smaller—and who felt empowered by Nujood’s story. One French woman who was suffering from marital violence told me: “If this little girl could fight until the end, then I can do it too.”
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