The lights dimmed, the crowd became hushed, and the image of a young woman with barcodes painted onto her head filled the screen at the 2016 New York Women in the World Summit. The packed crowd was seeing the opening scene of Sonita Alizadeh’s music video, “Brides for Sale,” a song that condemns child marriage, and that had itself saved Sonita from her own arranged marriage in Afghanistan. Mid-verse, the lights came on and Sonita appeared onstage, one hand gripping a mic, the other swaying in rhythm with her voice. A black headscarf wrapped around her head, dressed in red with a vibrant gold skirt, she paced across the stage restlessly in black flats. As she rapped, her face and tone alternated rapidly between expressions of remembered pain and defiance.
Sonita Alizadeh was only 10 years old when her mother first considered selling her as a bride. Sonita remained unmarried, and her family fled to Iran to escape the Taliban. But in 2014, when Sonita was 16, her mother told her she would be married off for $9,000, to help pay the dowry for Sonita’s brother’s marriage. Sonita was heartbroken, and she turned to her real love for comfort: rap music. Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, who had been filming Sonita for what she thought would be an immigration story, paid Sonita’s family $2,000 so she could remain in Iran a few more months and helped Sonita produce the music video for “Brides for Sale.” The song attracted international attention, and Sonita escaped her arranged marriage for good when she received a scholarship to study at a music school in the United States. “My music was a nightmare for her,” says Sonita about her mother. “Now she is one of my biggest fans.”