The Glare of Media Cuts Both Ways: The Case of Nujood Ali

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No one is going to make a TV movie about Nujood Ali, nor should they. The beloved Hollywood happy ending to a sad story is not in sight. (Not that this would actually stop someone from making a TV movie "based on a true story," in which the ending was changed, but that's beside the point.) Two years ago, CNN first brought Ali into the world's eye when they wrote a story detailing how the 10 year old child bride escaped her abusive marriage (if you can call a relationship between an adult and a child "marriage," even if it is legally recognized), made her way to a courthouse in her town in Yemen, and waited on a bench until a judge saw her.

He granted her the divorce.

This is the kind of story that we all love to hear. Nujood Ali was named Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine in 2008, and a book about her will appear in 20 languages. In Western parlance, this girl stood up against the Goliath of oppression and won. Hurray!

However, CNN now reports that all of the attention Ali has received has caused her more harm than good. Although donors cover tuition for a private education, she dropped out of school. Her parents are angry that her story is not earning more money for the family.

Paula Newtown, a CNN correspondent, summed up the story at CNN's In the Field blog:

In repeated calls to concerned human rights campaigners, lawyers, the judge involved in the case and government officials there has been precious little clarity about Nujood’s future.

Apparently, there is some type of a scholarship fund set up for education, but Nujood’s school attendance has been sporadic in part because, her attorney says, her family has not supported her education whole-heartedly.

It’s clear Nujood and her family believed being famous would earn them a fortune. It hasn’t. Some have said to me that Nujood has been victimized twice by her family.

First, Nujood was forced into an early marriage she did not want and later into a publicity frenzy that her family believed would make them thousands of dollars.

Whatever the truth, Nujood has been hurt and very little in her life has changed for the better.

This has been a difficult but important story to tell for all these months. Verifying the facts of what happened to Nujood has been daunting but it has been insightful.

At its core, though, this is a real and gritty story about what it means to rebel against cultures, religion and government.

Nujood is very confused and angry and is far from living out the childhood all young girls deserve.

Tiffany at We Blog You Read is disturbed by the aftermath of the Nujood Ali story:

...this young girl has every right to be mad. What angers me is that instead of quietly getting this girl help behind the scenes, society chose to exploit her and put her story on as many cover pages as possible. Something that instead of helping, seems to only have hurt the child. Sure, she’s no longer married to a man four times her senior, but her life is forever changed and she’s changed. She claims she can’t go to school because every where she goes she’s taunted and treated badly. She claims she’s angry because she can’t live a normal life. This story and so many other stories of children who are abused and then exploited absolutely breaks my heart.

At what point do we stop hurting those we’re trying to help and start helping? Nujood Ali didn’t need to be a Woman of the Year to get a divorce. And she didn’t need to do 1,000 TV interviews. She needed some quiet saviors to come in and help and not ask for recognition of their good deeds. We all want the pat on the back that lets us know someone else thinks we did the right thing, but in the end, what message are we sending to people like Nujood Ali and others who end up in her situation and then are forgotten when the cameras are off?

Clearly, this is one of those situations where good intentions seriously backfire because, while the media intended (I hope) to help Ali, not fully understanding the circumstances of her life led to a different bad outcome. Cultural understand and sensitivity is pivotal when reporting on events in other countries. Although as I write that, I also think that reporters and media types need to be sensitive about their lenses of privilege on reporting stories at home, too. How many "Cinderella" stories and "miracle babies" and "miraculously cured diseases" are played out on TV and in movies, and in reality, as Tiffany said, we have no idea what happens after the camera leaves?

The intention and desire to help is important. It is a critical part of humanity to want to do something positive when we see others suffering from injustice. The hard part, of course, is how to do the right thing in the right way. It seems easy - it should be easy - but it isn't.

At Chick Talk Dallas, American Ramadan reminds readers of another danger of "helping," when the help arises from stereotypes:

...And all of those poor, poor Muslim Yemeni girls CNN reporter Paula Newton writes, “Nujood showed a character and strength not easily expressed by women in Yemen, let alone a 10-year-old child bride.” Yes, Nujood did have strength, and I hope she continues to stay strong.

But there’s another Yemeni girl, a Muslim woman, who also has a strength of character you might not know about. Why? Because she doesn’t fit the the “scary/poor/uneducated/burka covered/Muslim woman” stereotype we’ve become used to. Her name is Mai Noman. She came to Dallas a few years ago as part of a cultural exchange program. Now she’s the editor of a youth magazine in Yemen called YoO! A progressive culture and entertainment magazine. While I wait the next 3.5 hours for sun down and prepare a meal for my non pedophile Muslim husband, I’m going to pray that continued ignorance and stereotypes that persist in the West especially among Christians and specifically those that pop up on my Facebook account, cease. You may not like to hear this, but what you think Islam is and who you think ALL Muslims are may not be true.

Before we can "help," we have to understand the context of the lives of the women and girls who are facing injustice. While understanding does not always mean agreeing, it does mean that any subsequent actions have a higher chance of succeeding because they are more likely to be appropriate.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. She is also the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, a book about unusual things to see and do in NYC.

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