Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nujood Ali

This year, my mom gave me The Little Mermaid for Valentine's Day. It was a really great gift because it was my favorite as a kid. We LOVED Ariel. Her voice, her hair, the sea, all the colors; she was the best! I still have the Ariel music box that I bought on vacation in Florida years ago.

A few months back, I watched the movie with two girls I have regularly babysat for the past four years. They are 7 and 10. It had been forever since the last time I had seen it and since it was new to them, they were excited. Instantly, I felt terrible. I wanted to shield their eyes the entire time. They had been exposed to the most poisonous fairytale of them all, and I was responsible. However, just like I had, they loved every moment.

The quote I have taped to the lower right hand corner of my bathroom mirror is "I no longer think about marriage." Nujood Ali spoke those words after successfully gaining her divorce at the age of 10.  She became the youngest divorcee ever, and sparked a worldwide awakening about the horrors child brides face and the injustice they experience.

Nujood's father arranged a marriage for her when she was ten years old.  The man she married was over 20 years older than her.  She suffered physical and mental abuse from him and his mother.  In Yemen, girls are allowed to wed at any age but cannot have sexual relations until the court deems them old enough.  Nujood's husband raped her repeatedly even though the court had never "given him permission" to consummate the marriage.  Showing incredible bravery and with encouragement from her father's second wife, she went to the courthouse by herself and waited for a judge to see her so she could request a divorce.  The judge took her in and, what I consider to be astonishing for countless reasons, asked her if she wanted to resume living with her husband after 3 to 5 years apart.  She smartly denied this option and was granted the divorce.  Her father and husband were incarcerated for their crimes.

Nujood was not completely alone in her fight.  Her lawyer, Shada Nasser, has been a noted feminist and women's rights attorney in Yemen.  She has set up numerous programs and support groups for female prisoners and other girls and women like Nujood.  Together, their efforts and bravery brought worldwide attention to the struggles of females in Yemen.  They were recognized by Glamour magazine and named Women of the Year.  Nujood now lives with her family and supports them with the royalties from the book she co wrote with a French journalist.  She is in school full time and has regular counseling to deal with all that has happened.  The events of her life have not been easy. 

Even after gaining the divorce she was poorly received in her home country for shining a "negative light" on Yemen and its culture.  Through it all she has remained steadfast in her determination to be a child and a human being who is not owned or controlled by anyone else. 

How does this correspond to my experience with The Little Mermaid? While I was brushing my teeth one day, reading and re-reading the quote, I had a thought. What if girls in the U.S. were told stories about girls like Nujood? Instead of fictional Ariel, what if we were told about girls who beat the odds in extraordinary ways because of their own determination?  What if girls were told to look up to other real live girls?  What if, what if, what if...

I was reading an article about Nujood's life now that it has been two years since her divorce and at the end of it, just before the comment section, there was an instruction that said "If you are at least 13 years of age you may read this message board but may not participate." This stood out for a few reasons. Strange a story about a 12 year old cannot be read by or commented on by a 12 year old. It made me think about the lengths we go to so as to protect childhood here in America. While of course I think this is important, I often wonder at what cost does this come to later in life. It seems more harmful to let kids watch stories about mermaids who literally give away their voice for the chance at love than it is to let kids participate in discussion and hear explanations of actual events that encourage them to speak up and reject injustice.

*Trigger warning: If you are ultra-sensitive about Disney smack talk, skip ahead three paragraphs.

Animators and story editors at Disney have to be aware of their control over our culture. They have to know each new character they create will in some way affect the outcome of the current generation's children and the way they imagine their futures. I went to the Caribbean Reef exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago a few years back that had tanks filled with clown fish. EVERY kid there was screaming “NEMO!!!!!!!!” at the top of their lungs. That’s undeniable power. Fairy tales originated as cautionary stories to warn children of the dangers they might face in life. They were also used to encourage kids' imaginations and help build their memories. They were learning tools. Disney has scrubbed away all of these lessons and has manipulated every single one into hetero-normative romantic nonsense that is just as unrealistic as the possibility of real mermaids.

In the original Hans Christian Andersen version, the mermaid is threatened with death and told the only way to live is to kill the prince she gave up everything for. Unable to do this, she plunges into the sea and turns to foam. If Disney gave us that version, I would not have imagined myself to be Ariel in the swimming pool, flipping around, looking for Prince Eric and hoping for giant boobs someday. I would probably have a better grasp on the importance of self and to be careful what we give up for other people to notice us/love us.

Not only does Disney have us all dreaming up our impossible, perfect happily ever-afters, but what they present as motherhood is pretty damaging. Most moms in Disney movies are killed off before the opening credits, or shortly after, or are evil stepmothers trying to murder the heroine because she is too beautiful. This is true in Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Little Mermaid; oh AND Finding Nemo. I understand this could be to portray different types of families but we are always feeling so sad for the poor widower, left alone to raise a child (unless he’s been tricked into remarriage by an evil woman) until he can find some other man to take her off his hands. This potentially communicates to children that mothers are disposable and easily replaced by grandma types or witches. It certainly has hurt our idea of stepmothers. But this negative portrayal is true for many characters; hunters, fisherman, sultans, they all get a bad rap too. Point is, Disney pollutes our culture because they get us young. Since they cater to patriarchal dominance, it especially hurts females and the way we see ourselves and our potential.

(If you actually skipped ahead, you are one of the people I worry for most in life.  Go back and read what I wrote. :)

The problem of course is popular culture for children in general, not simply Disney and The Little Mermaid. I would never advocate for total Disney censorship. I grew up with their movies and while I have felt their affects, I have luckily been more influenced by the real people in my life. It appears in more recent films, Toy Story 3 in particular, there is more focus on other themes like friendship and family than romantic love. In fact, after a conversation with my friend about a separate issue, he made me think about Ariel's plight in a different way. She had a content life under the sea but longed for life on land. She thought outside of what she was told was acceptable, and set out on her own path in her own way.  A trait I wish existed in more people because it results in a well-rounded world view.  Unfortunately, where this tale misses its mark, is when Ariel goes to extreme, self-sacrificing lengths to experience life on land for a man. It always comes down to a dream prince and the wedding.

Couldn't children learn from Nujood's story about fighting for a better life as well? And wouldn't it be more edifying? This isn't exclusively a one sided gender issue because I believe it to be harmful for all of us, both male and female. But this idea of growing up to be a princess who achieves happily ever after with a prince really seems to have a lot of leverage amongst American girls.  Shielding our younger generations from stories that may be "unpleasant" discredits their abilities and severely limits their potential to turn atrocities into cultural progression.  Can you imagine a world where children aren't allowed to read Anne Frank's diary?

Nujood's quote is inspiring to me because it's the opposite of what you would expect a 10 year old to say. In our culture, little girls are bombarded with thoughts about marriage because it is marketed to them from just about every possible angle.  It's a pretty significant piece to the "dream life" puzzle we all grow up imagining. But at the age of 10, Nujood found out against her will that marriage didn’t necessarily equal bliss, which is something many of us find out to varying degrees as adults. She now thinks of making the world a better place for girls and women. Any person who has the confidence to use their voice for the benefit of others seems like the best type of hero to emulate. Certainly, Nujood is a person whose story should be told and retold for generations to come.
Hipster Ariel, just for fun.
Oh HEYYYYYY!! reposted THIS POST! Big moment for me that is super fun and exciting!!

AND reposted an edited version on their site as well!!!


  1. Thank you for featuring Nujood's story. So inspiring! I couldnt agree with you more about the messages given through children's pop culture. I dont think that it all needs to change but I wish it wasnt so extreme. I wish that children's pop culture was more well rounded and offered several points of view. Over all, I wish that children had the opportunity to be more inspired by other real people not just fairy tales and romantic comedies.

  2. My friend Matt forwarded this link to me....HOLY CATS, how many great points do you make in here? Very interesting.

  3. As always I am impressed.
    It's funny because growing up my mom would ALWAYS have me focus on the female villains in Disney movies. The Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella, Ursala in the Little Mermaid because these women were way more independent and had depth. Sure, they were evil and what not, but they were doing life on their own.

  4. You're a great writer! I really enjoyed reading this for two reasons. First it's well written and funny and second but not less important it's a scarry reality that you decided to share. Thank you!

  5. :(:(:( omar nassar from Adelaide Cross Pacific Education