Olivia Snaije

“Now we have to start from scratch again. It’s so devastating,” said the filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami who has been fighting for girls and women’s rights in Yemen for over 25 years. “We were so close, with women activists, to getting a law against child marriages adopted. Now, of course, people’s priority is to survive, and to find something to eat.”

Portrait of Khadija Al-Salami

Since the Saudi-led coalition strikes on Yemen began last March, over 2200 civilians have lost their lives and 80% of the population is in severe distress; moreover there is little to no media coverage. Referring to Yemeni politicians and the disastrous state of affairs in the country, Al-Salami continued, “I call them bandits rather than politicians—their goal is power and money…and the Saudis have taken advantage of this. Usually I’m optimistic but in this case I really am not. What little infrastructure we had has been destroyed. I’ve seen how extremism is spreading and how politicians just care about what goes into their pockets. The Saudis succeeded in dividing the country in two—pro Saudi or anti Saudi. When you follow what they have been doing, it is either building religious institutes or giving money to tribes so that sheikhs will be loyal to them. I haven’t seen them building schools or research centres. Yemen is very poor but so rich in history and people are proud of their pre-Islamic history. Now that our history is being destroyed, this new generation will grow up with no heritage; they have been nourished by Saudi ideology for over 20 years...”

Al-Salami’s anguish is two fold: not only has she seen a particular form of extremism imported from Saudi Arabia become implanted in Yemen, but now, because of the war, her efforts to help women, child brides and run a foundation that helps girls receive an education have come to a virtual standstill. Much of Al-Salami’s raison d’être grew from her personal experience as a child bride at age 11. There is no legal minimum age for girls to marry in Yemen and United Nations statistics show that approximately 52 percent of girls are married before age 18 and 14 percent are married before age 15. Al-Salami’s husband at the time had agreed to wait until she was 14 to have sexual relations with her. Needless to say he did not respect the arrangement. Al-Salami put up so much resistance during her brief marriage that she was returned to her family. She went back to school, found a job and at 16 earned a USAID scholarship to study in the US. The US gave her a newfound freedom, unlike in Yemen where everything was haram, or shameful, she said. Al-Salami studied communications and film and co-authored a memoir, Tears of Sheba, with her new American husband, in which she recounted her story, framing it within the socio-political history of Yemen. She settled in Paris and after working for nearly 15 years at the Yemeni embassy as the press and cultural counselor saw her job evaporate in 2011 with the collapse of the government. 

Luckily for Al-Salami, she had continued to work on her documentary films on the side, with her government looking the other way—most of her films are banned in Yemen. One of her most successful documentaries was her 2005 award-winning A Stranger in her own City which follows the charismatic and intrepid Nejmia, a 13-year old girl in Sana’a, who refuses to wear the veil. A year later Al-Salami released the documentary Amina, a portrait of a young girl married at eleven and accused of murdering her husband at fourteen. (Amina had always maintained her innocence.) The fact that Al-Salami actually gained access to the women’s prison where Amina was on death row is an indication of her tenaciousness and determination. Shortly after the film’s release Amina was pardoned, after spending ten years in prison.

When the uprisings began in Yemen in 2011, Al-Salami grabbed her camera and headed home. She had just completed a documentary, Destructive Beast, which examined the socio-economic costs of corruption in Yemen. Astonishingly, said Al-Salami, Rashad Al-Masri, the minister of interior at the time, asked to see the film and showed it to his police officers.

“During the 2011 uprising I was motivated by people in the street. There were women coming out and asking for reforms. Men were all around them asking for reforms too but not for women’s rights. In the end the film I made wasn’t about the uprising but about women.”

Al-Salami’s 2012 film, The Scream examines the aftermath of these women’s participation in the uprising—they had high hopes, but what, Al-Salami asks, did they ultimately achieve?

A year later, Al-Salami produced another documentary about Yemeni political activist and writer Bushra Al-Maqtari, Killing her is a ticket to Paradise, which focuses on Al-Maqtari’s disappointment in the failed revolution, her continuing desire for freedom and democracy, and the threat to herself and her family that her writing brings her.

In 2014 Al-Salami released her first feature film, I am Nojoom, age 10 and divorced, inspired by the true story of Nujood Ali, who at age 9 was forced to marry a man in his 30s. With the help of a concerned judge and a human rights lawyer, Shada Nasser, she was able to obtain a divorce. Al-Salami faced countless political and financial hurdles in order to make the film, not to mention extremely difficult onsite conditions because of her decision to film in Yemen with mostly Yemeni actors. The film won best feature award at the Dubai Film Festival and is continuing to make the rounds of festivals worldwide.

Al-Salami recently picked up a project that she had started in 2007 that reflects a common concern in the West. When she was still working at the embassy, a French woman came to see her, having read Al-Salami’s autobiography. She was concerned about her daughter who had converted to Islam and had left for Yemen. The daughter was living in the province of Sa’ada, where a form of Salafism introduced from Saudi Arabia was thriving; the mother was hoping to find and visit her daughter. Al-Salami agreed to travel to Yemen with the woman, provided she could film the event. Together they made the journey to the city where the daughter was living in squalid conditions, without electricity. Filming with a hidden camera, Al-Salami was astonished to discover that there were converts from all four corners of the world.

The mother remained with her daughter for a week, and then decided she didn’t want to continue filming. “She was torn, she didn’t want to betray her daughter,” said Al-Salami. “She had done research about Islam and was trying to be more understanding towards her daughter whom she loves. But I’m not convinced. We have no right to judge her daughter but this practice is a completely rigid interpretation. For me, Islam is a religion of tolerance and acceptance. With these people, if you don’t follow them, you’re an infidel and that’s it.”

Several months ago Al-Salami visited the mother once again who said she could continue the film. Since she and Al-Salami had visited the region, the Shia Houthi rebels had taken control and last spring the Saudi-led airstrikes bombed the area in an attempt to dislodge them. She was extremely worried about her daughter who now has five children with her French husband (also a convert) but the family has managed to reach the province of Hadramaut. Al-Salami is currently looking for a producer and says her film will focus on how “although I come from this culture, I fought for things to be different. All my life I have been fighting for my rights, and now this girl, who has all her rights, gives them up. I just can’t understand it.”

Al-Salami continues to campaign for women’s rights in Yemen and recently co-wrote a book published in France this year with Nada Al-Ahdal, another 11-year old child bride, which became a highly publicized case. In her afterword, Al-Salami reminds readers that in October 2013 (one month after the death of an eight-year-old Yemeni girl who died of internal bleeding on her wedding night), recommendations by the Yemen rights and freedom committee headed by activist Arwa Othman included reforms that would place gender equality in law, prohibiting discrimination, and setting the minimum age for marriage at 18. Today, writes Al-Salami: “the crisis is absolute and everything must be rebuilt. Insecurity, which mainly affects women and children, is the primary concern of Yemeni citizens…In order to rise above this misery there must be a generalized revolution regarding the mentality, state of mind and education. It is crucial that young boys understand that their sisters are their equal, and that men understand that a society that does not allow women to flourish does not allow men to either, even if on the surface it appears that they have more rights…”

Khadija Al-Salami’s film I am Nojoom is being screened at a variety of film festivals, including one in the Netherlands in March 2016.

I Am Nojoom, Aged 10 and Divorced trailer:

Part 1 of A Stranger in Her Own City:

Destructive Beast Trailer:

The Scream trailer:

Killing her is a ticket to paradise trailer: