Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gender and consent, from Yemen to West Texas

Maggie says:
Since we're talking gender, marriage, and consent thanks to the lovely "Yearning for Zion" case, I thought it appropriate to add a face and a personality to our abstract discussions.

Meet Nojoud Muhammed Nasser, who is without a doubt one of the cutest 8-year-olds I've ever seen. But don't let Nojoud's innocent face fool you - this girl is as tough and strong as they come. Here's Nojoud's story: She lives in Yemen, where females are not especially celebrated (Yemen ranks 138 out of 140 on the list of "Best Places to be a Mother"). Despite this egregious ranking, Yemen has actually made some progress on the child marriage front: the average marrying age of girls has climbed from ten to fourteen over two generations. Given this progress, Yemen hasn't seen fit to issue a minimum age to marry as long as there is parental consent, although in 1999 they determined that marriage "contracts" could not be legally consummated until the female was "mature."

None of this helped Nojoud two months ago when her father, a mentally unstable panhandler, sold her to a 30-year-old man for marriage. Nojoud described her father's actions this way: "He beat me and told me that I must marry this man, and if I did not, I would be raped and no law and no sheikh in this country would help me." Well, the marriage happened, and shockingly, Nojoud's "husband" did not follow the law and wait until his "bride" was mature enough for sex. He raped Nojoud, repeatedly. She is eight, which is a fact that hits home when you read childlike quotes like this one: "Whenever I wanted to play in the yard, he beat me and asked me to go to the bedroom with him."

I bring Najoud up because she is, in fact, an enormous success story. Actually, she's a heroine for all of us. See, eight-year-old Najoud took herself to court - the first minor to do so in Yemini history - and sued her father and her husband for divorce, charging sexual and domestic abuse. Both men were arrested, although her father has since been released.

“I asked and begged my mother, father, and aunt to help me to get divorced," Najoud told the Yemen Times. "They answered, ‘We can do nothing. If you want you can go to court by yourself.’ So this is what I have done.”

Najoud won her case in that she is being protected and will not have to return to her husband, but it is unclear how or if the husband will be prosecuted. Charmingly, he had this to say from jail, where he is still being held: "It is not a matter of loving her, I don’t, but it’s just a challenge to her and her uncle who think that they can put me in jail and also the judge has no right to bring me here. How did she dare to complain about me?"

Najoud's case helped spur a push for additional marriage protections at the national level, but that attempt failed. In other words, nothing will prevent Najoud's little sister, all of six years old, from experiencing the same horror Najoud did.

Coming back full-circle to "Yearning for Zion," I wonder this: how different might things be if the abuse call that was placed to authorities could be authenticated? The ability to judge the sect by U.S. laws (when they do pay taxes and don't maintain their marriages are legal) would be stronger if one of their own was asking for it, just like Najoud did in Yemen. Until we get that verification, I'm afraid this feels far too much like a witch hunt, even if most of us hope those children never see the inside of that compound again. On the other hand, is waiting for one of those girls to overcome extraordinary pressures and reach out to the authorities the opposite of Big Brother - is it shamelessly negligent?

I'm really not sure. But I know that Najoud is an amazing little girl. And I hope the girls of "Yearning for Zion" have a chance to one day feel her power, too.

ps: Kudos to Jezebel for bringing my attention to Najoud's case.