Thursday, January 28, 2010

I AM NUJOOD, Age 10 and Divorced

This short book, which I read in a single sitting, astounded me with its narrative and left me feeling a mix of anger and incredulity upon completing it. Before reading this book, I'd read about Nujood Ali, who has been described as possessing a "precocious self-assurance." After reading the book, it's clearly an accurate description of a young girl who refuses to accept a situation that she knows is wrong. In doing so, it turns out, she opens the door for long-overdue change.

Nujood doesn't live an easy life as a young girl in Yemen, but she still finds time to enjoy her childhood. Her father, who has two wives, seems incapable of supporting them on his meager salary, and the rest of the family must find ways to make ends meet. Her father, in an effort to ease his own burden, agrees to an arranged marriage with a man three times Nujood's age, with the condition that he not consummate the marriage until one year after her first period. The new husband breaks that promise on the very night of their wedding, and from that point forward continues to beat her and rape her nightly. This is not consensual sex, but child rape, pure and simple.

The story that unfolds from that point forward is nothing short of amazing. It's also heartening to learn that right from the beginning of her ordeal, several Yemenese men stepped forward to stand up for her rights, even while knowing that Sharia law and local customs would be working against them. It is also important to realize that educated, empowered women in these countries are also willing to step forward and challenge such destructive customs and laws, and one of them, Shada Nasser, becomes her lawyer and champion.

I firmly believe this book, and the fall-out from the divorce trial, will continue to help change the lives of women living within this type of culture, although perhaps not quickly enough. No matter how many times I read about situations like this, I still find it astounding that a man can rape a woman, as was the case with Nujood's older sister Mona, and it somehow becomes the fault of the woman that shame comes to the family name. How can this possibly be? How can a young woman be raped in her own home, and somehow it becomes her fault, and the males must protect their own honor by condemning the females? This horribly twisted logic (or the complete lack of it, truth be told) boggles the mind, and books such as this one help break down barriers by exposing dark secrets.

Nujood's father continually justified marrying off his ten-year-old daughter by pointing to the example of Muhammad, who married Aisha when she was but six, and consummated the marriage when she was nine years old. Some apologists insist that Muhammad didn't marry her until she was nine, but Aisha's own words, found in Bint al-Shati's The Wives of Prophet Muhammad, tell a different story.

"The Prophet married me when I was six years old and the marriage was consummated when I was nine. The Prophet of God came to our home in company with men and women who were among his followers. My mother came [to me] while I was in a swing between the branches of a tree and made me come down. She smoothed my hair, wiped my face with a little water then came forward and led me to the door. She stopped me while I calmed myself a little. Then she took me in. The Prophet of God was sitting on a bed in our home, and she sat me in his lap. Everyone jumped up and went out, and the Prophet consummated his marriage with me at our house."

It is time people stop defending this as a religious custom, and call it what it is: a crime against children that continues today, 1400 years after it was given credence by a man who claimed to be godly. It may have been a custom in times past, but it remains no less of a crime. Books like this are important because they expose this heinous crime to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA: A Journey of Transformation

From time to time I come across books like this one, and once again I'm amazed to realize that there are still new voices in the world, as well as fresh perspectives about subjects that have been in the news for years. Joseph Sebarenzi's memoir about his life growing up in the killing fields of Rwanda is just such a book. It's an absolute jewel, providing profound insights while touching me deeply.

While I've grown familiar with the story of the Hutu and Tutsi clashes and the genocide that followed, I've never been exposed to this story in such an intimate and unflinching manner. During the bloody years of trouble in Rwanda, a huge part of Sebarenzi's family was slaughtered in the carnage. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that he could have stayed away, he felt the urge to return with his wife in the years following the genocide and attempt to play a role in the rebuilding and reconciliation of his beloved country.

What he encountered upon entering politics was a system that put on a unified face for the world at large, but inside was still rife with corruption and hidden agendas. After assuming a leadership role as Speaker of the Rwandan Parliament in 1997, he set out to do the most good that he could without compromising his principles. What he encountered at every turn was a leadership that pretended to support him, but secretly started to view him as a threat that might eventually seek to overthrow it.

Throughout his ordeal, Sebarenzi's deep faith kept him centered on bringing his countrymen together and working toward reconciliation and forgiveness. In the end, his drive and motivation weren't enough, and he was warned that in spite of his claims to have no interest in becoming the country's leader, the current leadership viewed him as a threat and set out to assassinate him. He was forced to leave the country by escaping into Uganda, and from there he made his way to the United States, where he now devotes his life to conflict resolution and reconciliation.

This is a deeply-touching story, beautifully told, and I highly recommend it.