Ask Noora Al Shami about her wedding day and she remembers the childish delight of an 11-year-old girl playing at being an adult. She was thrilled at friends and family gathering for a three-day party in the Yemeni port city of Al Hudaydah, 140 miles west of the capital city of Sana’a.
There were traditional singers and dancers, with one musician performing love songs to the backing of a traditional oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument. Food including spiced lamb and rice was plentiful, and the little girl wore “three really beautiful dresses” – two green and one white – for each day of the celebrations.
“I was allowed to wear adult clothes, to put on jewellery, to accept presents,” recalls Noora, who is now 35. “What had not dawned on me was that I would be abused by a violent criminal.”
The assailant was Mohammed Al Ahdam, a distant cousin who was well into his 30s when he married Noora in 1989, just after her 11th birthday. “He was three times my age and saw marriage as a means to act like a depraved animal,” said Noora, who has agreed to speak about her experiences in a bid to highlight the problem of child marriages, and ultimately to stop them. Earlier this month she visited the Sana’a parliament, and called for “awareness campaigns” across the country in front of elected officials.
Child marriages are scandalously common in Yemen. According to Human Rights Watch figures from 2006, 14% of girls are married by the time they are 15, and more than 50% before the age of 18. The motivation among impoverished families is to get rid of a mouth to feed at an early age, and to replace it with a possible share in a generous dowry.
Physical and psychological problems last a lifetime, however, and recently there have been unconfirmed reports of an eight-year-old bride dying from her injuries on her wedding night. That has led to calls for the legal age of marriage to be raised from 15 to 18. But even if the law was changed, there is no minimum age for marriage in Islamic law, and Yemeni clerics regularly argue against legal restrictions.
“It’s not really something that the law has been able to control, especially not in tribal communities,” said Noora. “The legal marriage age has been 15 for some time, but my mother was first married at nine, and divorced by 10, before going through another two marriages. She had me in her early teens.
“I wanted to stay at school and get a good job, but my parents could not afford it. They did not want me to live in poverty forever. I did not understand their decision to marry me off – only that the same thing happened to most girls my age.
“My husband provided a dowry of around $150, which was a huge amount. But it was at the end of the wedding that the fear and horror set in. I was taken away from my parents and left with a man who meant nothing to me. He drove me to the house he shared with his widowed father in Al Hudaydah. It was a nice home but I immediately started to quiver, and to cry.”
When Al Ahdam, a clerical worker in the city’s Red Sea port, took his clothes off in front of Noora for the first time, she ran away. She avoided sex for 10 days, before being told by Al Ahdam’s sisters that she was “bringing shame on our brother by rejecting him”.
After succumbing to Al Ahdam’s advances for the first time, Noora’s body went into shock. “I was rushed to hospital – I was a child being treated as a sex object, but the abuse did not stop. Nobody was interested in my complaints, as I was legally a wife.”
There were two miscarriages within a year, before Noora gave birth to a son called Ihab when she was 13. A daughter, Ahlam, followed when Noora was 14, and then Shihab, another son, when she was 15. All of the pregnancies were problematic.
Al Ahdam became increasingly violent. “He thought nothing of hitting me, even when I was pregnant,” said Noora. “If his father hadn’t been in the house, it would have been even worse. His presence was some kind of restraint, but I was still very badly injured.” The children suffered too. When Ahlam was two, Al Ahdam grabbed her by the feet and banged her on the floor. The child was taken to hospital bleeding.
After 10 years of constant attacks, Noora joined a project run by Oxfam and the Yemeni Women’s Union which assists victims of domestic violence. With their help, she successfully filed for divorce. A further legal battle followed as Noora fought for money to bring up her children. The process is ongoing but she at least managed to return to school and trained as a teacher. Now she is pushing for strictly enforced legislation to end child marriages.
Noora does not want to be dictated by the “ruins of the past”. She hopes that a new generation can be spared her experiences. “We need to change the lives of our children, and not just by paper laws,” she says. “We need a complete change in culture.”