A day after delivering a stirring performance to open the 2016 Women in the World New York Summit, Sonita Alizadeh, a 19-year-old rapper from Afghanistan, took to the stage once more, this time for an interview with BBC World News America’s Katty Kay. “I’m from Afghanistan, and I am 19 years old,” Sonita began. “And my family tried to sell me.”
She paused. “Actually, it happened two times. They tried to sell me to pay for my brother’s wife.”
The first time Sonita was almost sold as a bride was when she was only 10 years old. Fortunately for Sonita, that arrangement was dropped. Her family, living in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, would later escape to Iran.
“For a long time I was a refugee. I had no papers or ID, I couldn’t go to school… life was very hard for me,” says Sonita of her time in Iran. “I was looking for a way to share my feelings with others, and then I started to rap.”
Unable to attend school, Sonita cleaned bathrooms at a non-governmental organization for Afghan refugees, and watched music videos on TV to pass the time. Inspired by rappers such as Eminem, soon she was writing her own songs.
One day, when Sonita was 16, her mother, who had returned to Afghanistan three years previously, came back to Iran for a brief reunion. The joy of seeing her mother again was short lived: her mother told her that her brother needed $9,000 to pay the dowry for his soon-to-be-bride. To pay for part of the cost, Sonita was herself to be married off to a suitor in Afghanistan. Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, who told Sonita’s story for her documentary, Sonita, which won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January, captured Sonita’s family discussing how much to charge for her while the 16-year-old quietly watched from a corner. Asked by Kay about what she was thinking in that moment, Sonita replied: “I love my mother, I’m not mad at her. That moment i was thinking about society, about traditions, so I was sad because my mother couldn’t understand what was inside me. But also I could understand, because her family did not listen to her.” Her mother, Sonita adds, was married off by her own family at the age of 13.
Despite reservations from the filmmaker about compromising the documentary, Sonita was able to convince Ghaemmaghami to pay her family $2,000 so that she could put off the marriage and remain in Iran a few months longer. Sonita wanted to make a music video, and although singing solo as a female is illegal in Iran without special permission from the government, with the help of Ghaemmaghami and a few defiant music producers, Sonita was able to record her raps in secret. The product of her efforts, the music video “Brides for Sale,” begins with Sonita in a wedding dress, a barcode painted on her forehead, and bruises painted on her face. Asked about the artificial bruises, Sonita explains she came up with the idea while looking at the bruises on the face of a close friend. “[I] thought this is the real face of child marriage … Her family hit her … because she didn’t want to get married at that age,” Sonita recalls.
Sonita’s music video was a hit, amassing almost half a million views worldwide on Youtube. And a few weeks after making it, she was contacted by the Strongheart Group, which works to help individuals impacted by social issues tell their stories. They offered to sponsor a student visa for her to come to the United States, where she could attend Wasatch Academy in Utah on full scholarship. Without telling her mother, Sonita accepted. She arrived in the United States in January of last year, only calling her mother once she had already reached the school campus. Her mother was initially angry, but has since adjusted. “In Afghanistan, they hear my song from TV and radios,” Sonita said, smiling. “Now they realize, as a girl I have power.” Sonita adds that her friend, whose bruised face inspired her depiction of a child bride for her music video, has learned a similar lesson herself. The friend was also able to escape an arranged marriage, and is currently attending school also.
At the time of her arrival in the U.S., Sonita only knew two words of English: “Hi,” and “Bye.” A year later, her English is fluent, and her grades so far have been straight A’s. Sonita wants to return to Afghanistan someday as a rapper for women’s rights, but for now she’s hoping to extend her student visa so she can attend college, followed by law school, so she can become a lawyer. It’s her ambition, she explains, “to make child marriage illegal all over the world.”