“I felt strongly – even at that age – that with an education I could become anybody and do anything I wanted,” writes Yemeni film director Khadija al-Salami in her book The Tears of Sheba, speaking about her first days at school.
Born in 1966, during one of Yemen’s civil wars, in a family with a shell-shocked and violent father and a mother who lived with her second husband, Khadija was left with her grandmother in one of old Sana’a’s poor districts, her future did not look bright. School was her lifeline.
But not for long. At the age of 11, she was married off to an older man, and school was no longer an option. Instead, she moved with her husband to Damascus. After being raped, attempting suicide, and throwing tantrums, she managed to convince her husband to send her back to Yemen.
Stubborn and still eager for an education, she freed herself from her shame-fearing conservative family and landed herself a job as presenter of a children’s show at a television station, still only 11 years old. The mornings she spent at school.
From there on, things improved. Al-Salami went to study in the UK and the US and ended up with a job in Paris, where she has been living since 1986, working as a cultural attaché for the Yemeni embassy. She married Charles Hoots, the American co-author of The Tears of Sheba.
Meanwhile, things didn’t improve much in Yemen. Suffocating social and religious conventions remain prevalent, keeping the country steadily at the bottom of the global gender-gap lists.
This gender gap is the recurrent theme in al-Salami’s work, which consists mostly of short TV documentaries like “The Scream,” about the role of women during Yemen’s uprising in 2011, and “A Stranger in her Own City,” in which al-Salami follows a remarkable 13-year old girl who defies all social conventions.
Al-Salami’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2013 she made it onto the UAE-based Arabian Business Magazine list of the 500 most powerful Arabs in the World. She is accompanied by only two other Yemenis, Tawakkul Karman, recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, and Wafa al-Rime, the 16-year-old CEO of a solar-power company.
Inside Yemen, however, she is much less of a celebrity. “The woman left Yemen ages ago. No one knows her here, except the so-called intellectuals or just the group she mixes with. If you ask random people, no one knows much about her,” a Yemeni woman says in an interview with Fanack.
That didn’t keep al-Salami from making her first feature film, shot entirely in Yemen, “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.” The film is based on the true story of Nujood Ali, Yemen’s most famous child bride, who was married off at ten and filed for divorce in court. It was not only Nujood’s story that al-Salami wanted to tell—it was also her own and that of many other Yemeni child brides.
Al-Salami seems aware of the fact that it would be better if her message reached those who can really make a difference, namely Yemeni parents. “For that, I would like to screen the film in every village across my country,” she says in an interview with al-Ahram.
This, the editor of al-Ahram comments, is unlikely to happen, “given the current security situation.” But that is beside the point. It is not Yemen’s security situation that will prevent al-Salami’s film from showing in the villages; it is the fact that, despite her best intentions, she will not be able to change Yemeni society.
It takes more than sending messages to a receptive Western audience, messages that some may say are too romantic or apologetic. In her films and her book, she consistently treads with care, showing a great understanding of Yemeni society, carefully avoiding religious sensitivities and showing the breathtaking beauty of the country.
One can’t blame her: she loves Yemen, not to mention that she represents the country as a diplomat. She is a voice of reason, someone who manages to explain to her audience why things – being poverty, illiteracy, corruption, conservatism – are the way they are. Still, it may leave that same audience with the uneasy feeling that there is somehow room for excuses.
But is there? Education may be key to many things, but it is a question of whether one needs any education at all to understand that a forced marriage is not a good idea for a ten-year old girl. What she really may want to express—but deems it too insensitive to say—is that it is time to get rid of religious educators who say that it is a good idea.