I recently came across Nujood Ali’s story and it both shocked me and inspired me.
Ali, at 10, became the world’s youngest divorcee. She was married off to a man three times her age that regularly beat and raped her. Her in-laws assisted him in this task. She pleaded her father to take her away. But he refused. What happens to his own child after marriage is none of his business. The easiest way to get rid of a burden of a daughter is to marry her off. After two months in hell, Nujood made a precarious escape and went to the courthouse where she demanded a divorce. The international media got a sniff of the story. The rest is history.
She was awarded Glamour magazine’s “Woman of the Year” award. Countless newspapers heralded her as a hero, an icon, an inspiration of courage. Interviews were taken and she was globally applauded on every major American news channel. Delphine Minou documented her biography titled “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced”, which became an instant international bestseller. Little did she know that she was being exploited a second time.
Today Nujood is back to where she started. In her father’s home, poverty- stricken, reduced to begging. Her friends and family consider her an outcast. At the peak of her glory, Nujood had expressed her fervent desire to finish her education so she could become a lawyer. Today she has no money to pay for transport to go to school. While the success of her book has made Minou considerably richer, Nujood has not received any revenues. The Yemen government has confiscated her passport to prevent her from leaving the country for all the negative publicity she has caused.
News channels have not completely abandoned Nujood. They thrive on reporting her poor circumstances. Her back to poverty story is a sure winner for raising channels TRP’S. Everyone is outraged and horrified at the grave injustice. They discuss what the world is coming to. But Nujood remains a victim. The only thing that alarms me more than the obvious hypocrisy is the open display of it.
There used to live a Nujood in my own home and I’m ashamed to say that I could not protect her from suffering a similar fate.
Geeta came to live with us when I was 12. She was a year younger than me. Her mother was suffering from a terminal illness, her father was an alcoholic. She had three dependant siblings including a permanently lame brother and two little sisters. A sadistic and crabby grandmother completed the happy household. She was the sole breadwinner of the family. But she was also a little girl who wanted friends and pretty dresses. We became instant friends.
Both my parents had demanding careers. Thus I and brother were left in the charge of a nasty maid who had been in the household since I was a baby. My mother trusted her implicitly. Neither she, nor my father, had any idea as to the kind of violence that passed for discipline in her books. And we were too young to know better or protest any differently. So this maid (let’s call her X) was a neighbor of Geeta’s father in her village. She wanted someone easy and cheap to do mundane household chores. The father happily handed over his daughter in return for X agreeing to hand over Geeta’s salary only to him.
Child Labour is banned by law in India. But almost every second middle-class household will have a teen employee. Apparently our house was no different. I and Geeta bonded mostly over our shared hatred of X. We had our tiffs as well. She was jealous that I got to go to school. I was jealous of how pretty she was. She had big chocolate colored eyes that twinkled in merriment every time I called her. It didn’t take much to make Geeta happy. A toffee, a pencil or a hug and she would swoon. One time I commented on how silly she was and she, not knowing the meaning of the word silly, gave a wide smile. She had the most adorable dimples. But I was most jealous of her hair-thick, long and straight. How I hated my frizzy curly hair!
The first time I saw those brown eyes filled with tears was when X had a go at her with an umbrella. Her tiny body was black and blue everywhere. Once X had departed for her afternoon siesta, she gave in to uncontrollable sobs (crying in front of her would have resulted in more blows).I comforted her as best as I could. By evening she was waltzing merrily again.
Months passed. Geeta would get beaten up at least twice a week (though not as brutally), sometimes for not washing the clothes properly, sometimes for not mopping the house properly and so on. X’s cane did not spare me either, though never as fatally. But when it struck, Geeta was always there with a big smile and a warm hug.
When my other “rich” friends came over to play, I always included Geeta in our games. They didn’t mind. We were young then. The world had not prejudiced us yet. Occasionally Geeta’s father would turn up to collect his due. She would ask earnestly how her mother’s treatment was going. He would give a noncommittal reply and be off. It was much later I learned that every penny of her salary was paying for her father’s indulgence in alcohol.
Geeta’s mother is dead now. Her brother still cannot walk. She got married at 13 and had twins a year later. Her father is still an alcoholic. All this is word of mouth gossip since I have not seen her or heard from her after she left our home. Her father turned up at our doorstep one fine day and took her away. X said that he had found a suitable groom who had demanded less dowry than is usually norm. This was too good an opportunity to have her off his hands. I missed her terribly the first few days. But I consoled myself by thinking that at least she was out of X’s reach. Now, post puberty, I realize X was a fuzzy teddy bear in comparison to the fate she sealed herself in.I don’t know where Geeta lives or what the state of her life is now. But I do know the name of her village. Someday, soon, I will pay her a visit and tell her how infinitely happy my childhood had been because of her. Her right to a childhood had never been granted.