As lunchtime arrived and the crowds of noisy men and women cleared away, a curious judge asked her what she was doing sitting alone on a bench.
"I came to get a divorce," 10-year-old Nujood Ali told the jurist.
Her impoverished parents had married her off to a man more than three times her age, who beat her and forced her to have sex, she explained. When she told her father and mother that she wanted out of the marriage, they refused to help. So an aunt provided her with bus money to travel to court and seek a divorce.
Within days of that April 2 encounter, Nujood's tale and the plight of child brides in Yemen made international headlines. And thanks to the efforts of human rights lawyer Shada Nasser, who took up her cause, the girl at the center of the story has begun to overcome her trauma and dream of a better life.
Yemeni law sets the age of consent at 15. But tribal customs and interpretations of Islam often trump the law in this country of 23 million. A 2006 study conducted by Sana'a University reported that 52 percent of girls were married by age 18.Publicity surrounding Nujood's case prompted calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18 for both men and women. Yemen's conservative lawmakers refused to take it up. But the case sparked public discussion and newspaper headlines. Several more child brides came forward, including a girl who sought a divorce in the southern Yemeni city of Ibb this month.
"This case opened the door," Nasser said.
Nujood says that at first, she felt ashamed about what had happened to her. "But I passed through that," she said, eyes narrowing in her black head scarf.
"All I want now is to finish my education," she added, her mouth curling into a smile. "I want to be a lawyer."
Nujood's unemployed father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, has two wives and 16 children. He is among the many tribal Yemenis who migrated to the capital over the last decades looking for work. Instead, he found misery.
He arranged to have Nujood married in February to Faez Ali Thamer, a 30-something motorcycle deliveryman from his native province, Hajja.
Nujood's parents said they were trying to do what was best for their daughter and didn't even receive a dowry, a claim many Yemenis don't believe. The parents say the groom had promised he wouldn't have sex with her until she reached puberty.
"We asked him to raise her," said Shu'aieh, the girl's mother.
The groom has disputed that claim.
About 40 people attended the wedding in the village of Wadi La'a where the groom lived. As a wedding gift, she received three new dresses and a $20 wedding ring. She was to live with him and his family.
The trouble started on the first night, when he demanded that they share a mattress. She resisted, walking out of the room, only to have him follow. Sometimes he beat her into submission. For weeks, she cried all day and dreaded the nights, when he would enter the room, blow out the oil lamp and demand sex.
Nujood after the divorce
"My cousins would have killed me if I dishonored the family by asking for a divorce," he said.
But her mother's sister discretely advised her to go to court.
The bewildered judge who found Nujood on the bench decided to bring her to his house for the weekend. His daughters had a swing and toys she'd never seen.
Once the work week began, the judge dispatched soldiers to arrest Nujood's father and husband. He placed Nujood in the care of an uncle, her mother's brother.
Still the lawyers and judges had no idea how to handle her case. Nujood and her uncle languished in the courthouse for days until Nasser approached them.
Nasser vowed to Nujood that she would take her case without pay and that she would take care of her. She took her to her upscale home and offered to let her stay there.
Outraged, Nasser also called her contacts at the Yemen Times, the country's English-language newspaper. The story of the brave little girl who went to court on her own to stand up for her rights captivated the country. By the time a sympathetic judge agreed to hear her case several weeks later, media packed into the courtroom.
Verbally, Judge Mohammed Ghadi, was merciless to the husband.
"You could not find another woman to marry in all of Yemen?" he demanded.
But legally, there was little he could do. No provision in Yemeni law provides for enforcement of sexual abuse charges within a marriage. Not only did the husband and father go free, but Thamer demanded $250, the equivalent of four months salary for a poor Yemeni, in order to agree to a divorce. A sympathetic lawyer donated the cash.
Nujood was elated. "She was smiling," Nasser recalled. "She said, 'I want chocolate. I want pears, cake and toys.' "
Nasser bought her some new clothes. Donations began pouring in, with several wealthy Europeans offering to pay for her education.
When the controversy died down, Nujood insisted on going back to live with her parents again. Her father promised her that he would not marry off her or any of her sisters.With thanks to Mercury News