Inspiring Thursday: Sonita Alizadeh
“I saw them with bruises on their faces. I heard them talking with fear about getting married. They were 15 and 16 years old, but they acted like old women, tired of being alive. They were being forced to marry and they were giving up on their own lives. I wanted to talk about that and bring attention to this problem… so I started to rap about it.” – Sonita
Sonita Alizadeh is an Afghan rapper, born in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. She escaped becoming a child bride and, after her experience, she is committed to raising awareness of the devastating consequences of forced marriage.
When Sonita was 14, her family fled to Iran with one of her sisters and niece after the Taliban shot her brother and threatened to kill her family. She was in Iran as an undocumented refugee and had no legal papers, so she could not go to school. To support her family, she cleaned offices and bathrooms at non-governmental organization for Afghan refugees while learning the basics of how to read and write. However, she found an organization that provided basic education to young Afghans in the region. There, she discovered a passion for writing and art, and she began experimenting with pop music. After learning lyrical style and cadence by listening to Iranian rapper Yas and Eminem, she began writing her own songs. She managed to rap in secret with the help of a few defiant music producers. It was very dangerous to speak out and illegal for a girl to rap alone but she could not remain silent. She wrote about war in Afghanistan, the challenges she faced as a refugee, a child labourer and especially as a female.
“In the name of this pen that is my weapon, and my voice that is the voice of my generation
Let this story tell you about the truth, the story of defenseless women of Afghanistan”
She rapped about her friends who often came to school with bruised faces after long nights of arguing with their families, begging their parents not to sell them, not to marry them off, to let them decide their own future. One by one, she saw her friends disappear from her classroom because they were forced to marry older men and have children. “Children having children”, she said. She saw girls as young as 12 married off too much older men.
When Sonita was 16, she was told she had to be sold into marriage. Her brother needed a $7,000 dowry for his future bride, and her mother thought she could get $9,000 for selling Sonita into marriage. So, her mother told Sonita she must return to Afghanistan because there was a man waiting for her.
In response, Sonita wrote the rap song “Daughters for Sale“ to protest, share her experience and the experience of so many of her friends. With the help of a filmmaker who was recording her story, she made a music video and posted it on YouTube, and it went viral. In the video she wears a white wedding outfit and her make up represents the signs of domestic violence on her face.
“Let me whisper to you my words
So no one hears me speak of selling daughters
My voice shouldn’t be heard, as it’s against sharia
Women must remain silence, this is the tradition of our city”
“I received a great response from the world. I was able to connect with other girls experiencing the same issues”, she said. “It happens everywhere, every two seconds, one girl is married (off) under the age of 18”. Rap music gave Sonita the opportunity to tell her story and explain the negative impact of child marriage.
A few weeks later, Sonita was contacted by the Strongheart Group, an organization that helps individuals directly impacted by social issues tell their story. They offered to sponsor a student visa for her to the United States to help her achieve her dreams to get an education and be a voice for girls forced into marriage.
So, in 2015 she pursued her dream of getting an education. She has transformed from a teenager with no formal education into a high school graduate recognized as the leading youth advocate fighting child marriage in the world. When Sonita told her mother where she was, she was angry and told her to keep her hijab on, and come visit as soon as possible. As for almost being sold, Sonita doesn’t hold it against her mother. Her mother, herself a child bride, didn’t meet her husband until the wedding day. She was simply repeating the cycle. “She loves me, I know that,” she says. “The older generations, they are teaching us these old traditions but we can change them. Not all of them. But some”. In the end her family encouraged her music.
Today Sonita is an advocate for ending child marriage. She lives in the U.S. and in between classes and exams, she takes every opportunity to speak out about the issues. ”My biggest fear is to see a world where girls continue to be treated as property, unable to imagine or create a bright future for themselves, and to see world leaders to take action to end gender-based violence around the world”.
Though her lyrics, Sonita tried empowering her friends to protest their parents‘ wishes. The 2016 documentary footage from the film “Sonita” shows her at the NGO, rapping to a young friend who is facing the prospect of being sold as a second wife to man in his 30s for $4,000.
“There’s noise, dad is coming, we’ll make big bucks for our daughter
No more school for you girl, it’s not your track
I feel I had reached the end of the line
But I want my right and will start to fight”
“It´s like what I would like to tell my father”, her friend says though tears.
Sonita has already made a difference for one person at least: her youngest sister. She did not receive any pressure to marry in the way their parents pressured their other daughters. “I think those interviews and what I had to say affected the way my mom thinks. Now she thinks that the only value a woman has is not just being a wife or a mom, it´s more than that. That´s why they are not pressuring my sister that much now”.
Her message is reaching the highest levels of global leadership, and her story and vision are inspiring young women around the world to stand against child marriage and stand up for their dreams. Many young people around the world are joining her in the movement to end child marriage.
Sonita wants to return to Afghanistan as a rapper for women’s rights. She knows it’s dangerous to be a female activist in a deeply conservative country, but, she says, “my country needs a person like me.”
“My family, they changed their minds,” Sonita says. “If I can change their minds with my music, then maybe I can change the world.”
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern