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The 10-year-old Yemeni girl who fought for a divorce

A powerful film tells her story in all its complexity

By Sameer Rahim  
A scene from

A scene from "I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced" with Reham Mohammed

In 2008, a 10-year-old girl Yemeni girl called Nojood Ali was married by her parents to a man three times her age. For two months, she was beaten and raped by her “husband” before she managed to escape. Remarkably, she took the man to court and obtained a divorce on the grounds of her age and maltreatment. A new film that fictionalises this true story, I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced, was shown at the opening of the 18th London Asian Film Festival, earlier this month.

Not only is this an important story—there are 16 million child marriages each year round the world—it is also significant because of who is telling it. The director Khadija Al Salami is a Yemeni woman now based in France, who was herself the victim of a child marriage at the age of 11. As she told the audience during a Q&A after the screening, she had been desperate to get hold of the film rights to the book Nojood wrote after her ordeal. (Nojood has since changed her name to Nojoom—hence the film’s title. Her original name means “hidden,” while her new name means “stars.”)

An experienced documentary maker, Al Salami had not made a fictional film before now. She told us that a famous French director offered a lot of money for the rights, but that she felt she was in a better position to tell Nojoom’s story. “I was worried it would be a look from outside,” she told the audience, one that would ignore “the traditions of Yemen.” Her passion managed to convince the publisher to sell her the rights.

Just like the 2012 film Wajda, which Haifaa Al Mansour directed on the fly in her native Saudi Arabia, I Am Nojoom was made in Yemen without alerting the authorities. Al Salami didn’t even tell most of the actors what the film was about. (Child marriage is an “extremely sensitive” subject in Yemen, Al Salami said.) The only actor who knew the full story was the lead playing Nojoom, Al Salami’s niece, the precociously impressive Reham Mohammed. The scene in which she is forcibly taken to bed on her wedding night is filmed with restraint—a lamp being extinguished symbolises her physical violation—but is no less harrowing for that.

Nojoom’s journey is a ultimately a hopeful one. She gains the sympathy of an open-minded judge who agrees to take on her case. She becomes a celebrity and ends up going to school. Some of this is filmed slightly clumsily—the structure of the film is far from perfect, and the acting, apart from Mohammed, bears the heavy impression of the overdramatic style of Yemeni soap operas.

But such criticisms seem beside the point. This film is not designed to appeal to western audiences; it is neither subtle in its message nor arty in its technique. Rather, as Al Salami said, this is a film she hoped would be seen by Yemenis—and people all over the Middle East—in order to bring about progressive change.That is why she was so keen to make the film herself, and not let a French director take control.

One consequence is that the male characters—including Nojoom’s father and husband—are treated with more nuance than they might have been otherwise. The father marries off Nujoom because after moving to the city of Sana’a he is desperate for money. He is also emotionally scarred. Back in the village, his daughter was raped and the culprit got away scott-free. (The resulting shame is why the family were forced to move to the city.) The husband, for his part, marries Nujoom to satisfy his elderly mother’s wish for a helper round the house. In Yemen, it seems, matriarchy can be as oppressive as patriarchy.

At the trial, the judge argues that there is no religious justification for child marriage; it is a tribal custom that has no place in modern society. Yet he acknowledges the authority of the tribal sheikh who presides over the village where Nojoom’s husband lives. He has to give his consent before the girl can get her divorce—as in Yemen progressive change can only come about if all its citizens, not just enlightened city-dwellers, are brought along.

I asked Al Salami about the role of religion in justifying child marriage, and also in stopping it. Many people confuse religion with tribal customs, said Al Salami, “because of their ignorance. Some imam will interpret the religion in their own interests.” Her opinion is a reasonable one, though I’m not sure whether the people justifying child marriage are so much ignorant of Islam as simply interpreting it differently. (There are conflicting reports over what age the Prophet Mohammed married his wife Aisha—some say nine, some say older.) Such clashes of interpretive authority are being grappled with in many places right now in the Muslim world.

The tragedy is that I am Nojoom was never shown in Yemen and will not be for the foreseeable future. Around the time it was due to appear in cinemas last year, Saudi Arabia intervened in a civil war and began bombing the country. Thousands have been killed and many more have become refugees. Desperate parents are marrying off their daughters to save them from poverty or rape. “We cannot wait for other people to change us. It has to come from within.” Al Salami’s inspiring words brought a round of applause from the London audience. But as she admitted there is a greater problem than child marriage in Yemen right now. It was a salutary reminder that just as with other problems plaguing the Middle East—terrorism, most notably—challenging an ideology or mindset is fruitless unless you change the circumstances in which these ideas take hold.

Watch the trailer for I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced

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