Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book 82, Yemen: "I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced" by Nujood Ali

And thus we begin West Asia, with a little light reading! And before you think I'm being facetious about the terribly serious issue of child marriage, I'll have you know that this book is (quite appropriately, when you think about it) written as if targeted towards children, written by proxy to explain every single aspect of Yemeni everyday life to foreigners aged 10 or above: the recipe for ful, the rituals of Ramadan, the wording of Al-Fatiha.

Of course I'm suspicious of the agenda: first published as Moi Nojoud, 10 ans, divorcée, it rehearses plenty of clichés of protecting oppressed Asian women from evil Asian men, made all the more insidious by the ventriloquising tactics of "co-author" Delphine Minoui, who writes through the voice of the oppressed rather than overtly exposing herself as the outsider. (Yes, yes, I know how easily interviewees' words can be crafted to fit a desired image; I've done it myself as a reporter, frequently.)

But then it manages to elude some of those clichés - it's not white people saving Nujood, it's the nice Muslim judges and the nice women's rights lawyer Shada Nasser, the foreign journalists come in only later, and pretty much all the urbane Yemenis she tells her story to are appalled. Plus, there's an intro and outro in Minoui's voice, delicately explaining the background of the nation and Nujood's later quandaries (she wasn't able to stay in her new aid organisation-funded school because of family troubles; her dad still can't find work, her mum is still depressed beyond functionality, her brothers still blame her for shaming the family).

And hell, Nujood's a heroine. Seriously, how many little girls in her position have the guts to run away from their rape and abuse and name their oppressors in court? Plus, she's inspired other girls to follow suit, and has influenced changes in law. Plus, it seems she's been terribly sweet-spirited all through the process.

You'll have to excuse my earlier skepticism. You see, Singapore's undergone social turmoil because of the Western world's moral panic over child brides: namely the case of Maria Hertogh, the Dutch girl adopted into a Muslim Indonesian family and married to her apparent satisfaction and consent at the age of 13, when she'd had her menses and everything already (which Nujood had not). Hertogh's birth mother found her again and successfully sued to get her back into Christendom, against her will. Age of consent and marriageability is a culturally determined thing, dammit; raising both reduces the chances of abuse but there are loads of other factors causing the abuse in the first place.

Ah, there's a lot to blabber on about this issue. Need to get some sleep.

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Representative quote: Yes, I've made up my mind. When I grow up, I'll be a lawyer, like Shada, to defend other little girls like me. If I can, I'll propose that the legal age for marriage be raised to eighteen. Or twenty. Or even twenty-two! I will have to be strong and tenacious. I must learn not to be afraid of looking men right in the eye when I speak to them. In fact, one of these days I'll have the courage to tell Aba that I don't agree with him when he says that, after all, the Prophet married Aisha when she was only nine years old. Like Shada, I will wear high heels and I will not cover my face. That niqab - you can't breathe under it! BUt first things first: I will have to do my homework well. I must be a good student, so that I can hope to go to college and study law. If I work hard, I'll get there.

Next book: Christiane Bird's The Sultan's Shadow, regarding Oman.

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