“Let me whisper, so no one hears that I speak of selling girls. My voice shouldn’t be heard since it’s against Sharia. Women must remain silent… this is our tradition.”
Rap is not a music genre that one normally associates with “whispering” and, suffice to say, the opening lyrics of Sonita Alizadeh’s song “Brides for Sale” are the only aspect of her performance that is quiet.
A video of the teenage Afghan rapper and activist was played onstage at London’s Women in the World summit, in a powerful demonstration of how music helped her escape from child marriage. There was a raw passion in her performance. Pleading to the camera, adorned with painted bruises, she made her case against injustice on behalf of herself and other young women, including her own friends who are threatened with the same fate.
Sonita was 10 years old when her mother first considered selling her to a man: “I wasn’t sad then because I didn’t know what she was talking about. It was like dress-ups,” she told Zarghuna Kargar, author and journalist with the BBC and once a child bride herself, at the Women in the World London Summit.
Sonita wasn’t married at 10, as it happened, but when she turned 16, her mother announced that she would be married off to a man she had never met, to help pay the dowry that would cover wedding expenses for her brother. The scene, included in a documentary about Sonita’s life, shows her mother discussing selling her for $9,000. The film, Sonita, will premiere at the IDFA in Amsterdam next month.
“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak,” Sonita recalled. “My heart broke. It was too hard to imagine marrying someone I didn’t know. What would it feel like to be touched?”
To speak up for her own interests has required courage.
“In my country a good girl should be silent, don’t talk about her future, and listen to her family even if they say you have to marry him or him or him. A good girl is like a dog, who they play with. But I am a singer and I want a shiny future.”
In her anger and despair, Sonita wrote “Brides for Sale,” recorded the song, made the video, put it on YouTube, and then turned off her cell phone, worried about what he mother might think. A few days later her mother called: “She had seen the video and said it was good. She didn’t show me much emotion but it was a big change in my life.”
Her parents relented and Sonita, at 18, is unmarried, a rapper and an activist living in the U.S., where she landed a scholarship to a music school in Utah. Back in Afghanistan, she is a heroine to millions of young women, according to Kargar, who struggled with her own emotions over the issue.
And her mother? Sonita does not blame her: “My mother was 13 when she was married. Everyone had told her that she was a woman and had no value. This is what her family has told her and that is what she believed.”
“My music was a nightmare for her. Now she is one of my biggest fans.”