Last year, Nujood Ali seemed almost superhuman. The Yemeni girl was married off by her family at the age of 8 to a man who raped her repeatedly and joined with his family in beating her. She responded with almost unimaginable self-possession and strength: She took a taxi, by herself, to a courthouse and demanded a divorce. Which she got.
“It made me strong,” she said in a 2008 interview with Glamour, which named her their Woman of the Year. “Now, my life is as sweet as candy.”
But, in a recent interview with CNN, Nujood's life seems anything but sweet.
“There is no change at all since going on television. I hoped there was someone to help us, but we didn't find anyone to help us. It hasn't changed a thing. They said they were going to help me and no one has helped me. I wish I had never spoken to the media,” Nujood says.
Nujood, who proclaimed at the time of the divorce that she wanted to go to school, now refuses to go. She seems angry, depressed and withdrawn. She feels like an outcast, even within her family. Shada Nasser, the lawyer who worked with Nujood to get the divorce, suspects the family may be “victimizing” her because her celebrity hasn't lifted them out of the poverty that the marriage was arranged in part to alleviate.
This story is heartbreaking partly because of how indomitable Nujood once seemed. It's normal for a child who has been severely abused to exhibit ongoing rage and despair. Yet hers is shocking, because she seemed so unbowed in previous press coverage. As for that press coverage, there's no doubt that her story was newsworthy, or valuable in terms of the attention and funding it brought to the issue of child brides, but Nujood is now famous for defying a widespread cultural practice and she will almost certainly continue to experience social fallout from that. Donors have provided funds for her education, and more money is forthcoming from the sales of her autobiography, but any child in her position would also require substantial one-on-one nurturing and support -- which is what we outsiders are most powerless to provide.
Nujood is not just a poster girl; she's a girl. She saved her own life once. It remains to be seen whether she can do it again -- or whether the odds stacked against her are, finally, too high.