News / Middle East

Yemen Marriage Laws Under Scrutiny

Sally al-Sahabi, 12, and her father enter the police station, hoping that having her husband arrested will pressure him into granting her a divorce
Sally al-Sahabi, 12, and her father enter the police station, hoping that having her husband arrested will pressure him into granting her a divorce
Heather Murdock

In Yemen, two men are in jail after a 12-year-old girl marched into a police station, and demanded the arrest of her father and her 26-year-old husband. Sally al-Sahabi says she was beaten and raped by her husband, but still needs his consent to get a divorce. After two years of struggle, she hopes the arrests will pressure her husband into relenting.

Mubkhoot Ahmed looked delighted as a Yemeni police officer led him and his 26-year-old son-in-law into a concrete jail cell. He continued chatting loudly after the door was chained shut and padlocked.

His daughter, 12-year-old Sally al-Sahabi, was not as confident. She wants a divorce from her 26-year-old husband, Nabil al-Mushahi, but worries that her lawyer's plan, which is to pressure al-Mushahi into granting her a divorce, puts her father in danger.

About an hour before the arrest, al-Mushahi, tried to leave the family home, in Sana'a's medieval Old City, but Sally's father shoved him back into the courtyard.

"You are not leaving this house until you divorce my daughter, or we both go to jail," he shouts.

A few minutes later, Sally left the family home with a letter from a prosecutor. Fully veiled in the bright sun, she marched through the crowded marketplace to the police station, less than a mile away. More than half of the girls in Yemen are married before they are 18. In many parts of the country, it is customary to marry girls as young as 10 years old. And in this ultra-conservative society, it is unusual to see a girl fighting back.

At the police station, one officer read the crumpled, handwritten letter while another took her statement. Her father and her husband lied on her marriage certificate, she said. They claimed she was 15 years old, but she was really only ten. Falsifying official documents is a criminal offense. About 30 minutes later, several policemen escorted Sally back to her house, and calmly arrested the two men.

Ahmed says he was wrong to marry off his daughter at 10 years old, wrong to force her to live with her husband in a far away province, and wrong to have beaten her for refusing to have sex with her husband. Now, he says, he will do anything to free her from the marriage.

But for women in Yemen, divorce is not easy. Shadda Nasser, a lawyer representing Sally, says divorce in Yemen is a simple legal process, for men. But for girls like Sally, it is nearly impossible without the husband's consent.

"Here in Yemen, if the woman she wants to ask about the divorce, she has to take a very long process," said Nasser. "But the man, when he asks about the divorce, he can go directly to the court and pay for this paper, and go to his wife and say now I am not your husband."

With both men in jail, Nasser is hoping that the husband will relent. But al-Mushahi looked defiant as he entered the police station with the arresting officers. He told reporters his sister was married when she was about 7 years old, and he does not know why it is now suddenly a problem.

And Yemeni law does not recognize Sally's major complaint: that her husband forced her to have sex, as legitimate. Marital rape is not a crime in Yemen, and currently there is no law that says a 10-year-old cannot be a wife.

But in the coming weeks, the Yemeni parliament is set to vote on a new law that could set a minimum age for marriage at 17 years old. This law has been floating around the legislature for over a year now, and won a majority of votes in an earlier vote, but was later blocked by influential conservative sheiks.

Sheik Mohammad al-Hamzi, a parliament member, says the measure is un-Islamic because it encourages pre-marital sex and reflects Western values, not Yemeni values.

But Sally and her father say the law would help educate poor families, who often marry their daughters young to collect a dowry, or just to have one less mouth to feed.

Sally says she wanted to get married because brides get new clothes and jewels. But she did not know about sex, or that she would be taken far away from her family. And her father, who is illiterate, says child-brides are common in Yemen, and many parents just don't know the dangers.

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