8-year-old Yemeni Girl Wants to Divorce Her 30-year-old Husband

In one of the Arab world's poorest countries, the schisms between tribes and the reformed government abound.

Nojoud Mohammed Nasser is probably the most famous Yemenite girl in the world.

Last week, 8-year-old Nasser went alone to the court of justice in Sanaa, Yemen's capital city, to find a judge who would agree to accept her claim against her father for compelling her to marry a 30-year-old man. She also insisted that the judge force her husband to divorce her.

Yemenite law states that 15 is the minimum legal age for marriage, but does permit girls younger than that to marry on condition that the couple "does not engage in intimate relations."

Nasser told journalists that every time she wanted to play outside, her husband demanded that she return home to sleep with him.

The court on Tuesday annulled the marriage and ordered the girl's family to pay compensation to the husband.

According to Yemenite journalists, this story reflects the massive gap between a seemingly reformed republic and the reality on the ground.

In Yemen, there are in fact, two "law books": the first is official and the second is based on traditional Yemeni customs. When these two legal systems collide, the traditional law wins.

It is not just the law books that suffer double meaning. Yemen's image as a united state is also misleading. The government for example, drafts youth from all over the country to serve in the security forces, but it appears the main focus of these recruitment efforts is on northern residents. Southerners are still perceived as "suspicious" - better to be kept at arm's length.

It was against this divisive background that violent riots took place this month in the country's southern cities, after officers in charge of army recruitment in the north refused to accept two southern youths who had asked to sign up.

Eleven people were killed in those clashes, scores more were injured and hundreds arrested. Consequently, the divide between the north and the south has widened even further.

A powerless government

In a country considered the poorest of Arab states, the gap is not just between the north and the south, but also between the central government and the tribes that control the peripheries of the state's major cities.

In this instance, there is no difference between the north and south - the government's powerlessness is felt everywhere.

Thus for example, tribal leaders encourage abduction of tourists and, as part of the negotiation process, demand local government help in obtaining cars, paving roads and building schools in exchange for the release of the hostages.

The security services, who in the past have tried to free hostages using force, have begun absorbing their losses, leaving management of "abduction deals" to the tribes.

Foreign tourism agencies now understand that it is preferable to discuss the release of the captive tourists with tribal leaders instead of with the security services. This way, all sides benefit from tourism.

At present, the tribal leaders are being forced to "compete" with extremist factions, who have been linked to the organization, Al-Qaida.

Tourism is considered to be an important part of Yemen's economy, though its revenue brings in only 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Still, the extremists seem unsatisfied with just abducting tourists - on certain occasions foreigners have been killed, and as a result, there has been a significant reduction in the number of tourists coming to Yemen.

Last week, the government announced that its aim was to raise the number of tourists from this year's half a million to one million by 2010.

Following the announcement, state representatives were asked how these aspirations could be reconciled with the extremist elements' control of foreign movement within the country.

New state guidelines require tourists traveling outside of Sanaa to obtain a special permit from the Interior Ministry, in order to monitor their itinerary in the event of an abduction.

Despite the schism between Yemeni and state law, Al-Qaida and the tribes, north and south, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is striving to maintain order in his country.

He has won the support of the Bush administration by vowing to fight decisively against Al-Qaida. Still, Saleh has been forging close relations with Iran; Iran's Foreign Minister visited Saleh earlier this month.

Saleh is also responsible for driving initiatives aimed at solving two of the Middle East's central crises - the political unrest in Lebanon and the bloody rivalry between Fatah and Hamas.

His schemes have so far yielded no real results, but they bolstered Saleh's position at the recent Arab League summit in Damascus. That summit, like the Yemini initiatives, however, was just a lot of hot air.