Barely three years ago, a 16-year-old refugee was walking through the streets of Tehran, holding tightly onto her bag. Police in Iran target people like her. It was possible they might search her bag’s contents and open her notebook. If they did, they’d discover two things: she felt strongly about women’s rights and she was a rapper.
“Rappers are the ones who speak about injustices and speak reality,” says Sonita Alizadeh, now 19. “And women are not supposed to speak out. So for me, it felt like carrying drugs or something illegal.”
Today, Sonita is sitting in Los Angeles chatting to me over Skype. She’s a student activist and rap artist now, busy in the studio working on new songs in Farsi. A documentary about her, titled Sonita, won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. She has performed at the State Department’s Women of Courage Awards in front of John Kerry and Joe Biden.
This afternoon, however, she looks like any other 19-year-old with her side braid and a tie die shirt that American students taught her to make in school. Happy and glowing from her summer break, she talks about crafts and hikes they take together, the fast-food they like. But her American school friends could never imagine what she’s been through or what she’s about to take on.
Sonita and her family are Afghan, and fled to Iran to escape the Taliban. She was 10 years old when she first overheard her parents discussing the possibility of selling her into marriage. “Two of my friends were forced to marry,” Sonita says. “One of them was always trying to escape but couldn’t. She had bruises on her face. When I looked at her I thought this is the real face of forced marriage.” Sonita’s friends were just some of the 15 million girls married each year before the age of 18. If her song Brides For Sale hadn’t gone viral she would have been one of them.
Sonita is saying the majority of this in English without help from an interpreter, though there’s one on hand skyping from Washington D.C. It’s impressive for someone who grew up without a formal education – refugees aren’t allowed to attend public school in Iran. Determined to find an opportunity to learn, she ended up cleaning the bathrooms of places that would give her lessons in return. A computer center agreed and taught her to edit music videos; now her videos have hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. A martial arts center did as well; now she’s a black belt.
“So in the Brides For Sale music video,” she continues, “I painted bruises on my own face and wore a white dress and veil. People from all over the world they can’t understand my language so I want them to get the message from the video. I wanted people to know what is happening. And I wanted to tell my family what was inside me when they wanted me to marry.” Sonita packs a punch in that four-minute video. With that white dress and bruised face, she stares the camera down. She tears through her verses with authority and skill. In interludes, she keeps staring at viewers, making it clear that it doesn’t matter how smart or special she is: she’s still stuck.
Being a child bride means more than losing your childhood. It means being denied an education while facing a dramatic increase in exposure to disease and physical abuse. The risk of pregnancy and HIV skyrocket and both can kill: complications in childbirth is the primary cause of death for adolescent girls worldwide, with HIV at number two.
When asked about her family, Sonita takes a deep breath and asks for the interpreter’s help. “I want to let people know that my mother she likes me a lot,” she says. Her mother was sold herself at 13. “She just wanted to follow the tradition and she didn’t know what to do. That was all she knew.” As Sonita entered her teenage years, the Alizadeh family was approached by a man offering $6,000 for her. Her parents thought it was too low; she could sell for $9,000.
When Sonita found a local youth center as a teenager, she was in heaven. The organization welcomed refugee girls and had some classes in photography and writing. She was drawn to music, because “I just wanted to find a way to talk,” she says. She originally tried pop but decided rap would be better to share ideas. Rappers like Eminem and Yas fit so much into their songs – this was a medium she could get behind. Sonita was getting faster and a staff member at the youth center noticed. The staffer called a cousin, an Iranian filmmaker named Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. Rokhsareh is a female filmmaker from Tehran, who has made 6 documentaries with wide international exposure. Her specialty is highlighting “outsider art.”
Rokhsareh was impressed by Sonita and asked if she could follow her, making a documentary about her music. So it was Sonita’s art and ambition, not her situation at home, that was originally the core of the story. It was almost a coincidence that Rokhsareh was filming the day the Alizadeh family was negotiating Sonita’s marriage price. The camera zoomed in on Sonita’s face. The same vibrant, articulate girl from the youth center was now standing in a kitchen scared out of her mind. It was going to be a very sad film.
The connection to Rokhsareh turned out to be an opportunity. Sonita asked the director to pay her parents $2,000 – the money they needed for his brother’s wife’s dowry – so that she could avoid being sold herself. Rokhsarah was conflicted, both as a filmmaker and over the ethics of one girl being bought in the place of another. But she eventually agreed to pay. Once she did, Sonita asked her for help with just one more thing. She had some ideas for a music video.
Brides For Sale was seen by over 500,000 people. Sonita remembers when the video launched. “My family started calling me,” she says. “I was really scared and didn’t know what they’d think. Then my mom said it was good. She didn’t say it was amazing or really good. She said it was good.”
Representatives from the Strongheart Group, a non-profit organization that designs social movement campaigns to affect large-scale social change, thought that it was more than good. “As soon as we learned about Sonita’s plea to be saved from child marriage and desire to go to school, and heard her brazen voice already putting a spotlight on human rights injustices, we knew we could help,” says Strongheart Executive Director Zoe Adams. The group flew Sonita to the U.S. and got her a full scholarship to the international, college preparatory Wasatch Academy in Utah. She’s spent the last year settling in, catching up on the education she missed out on. She likes geometry best; there’s no language barrier to set her apart.
“My mom doesn’t want to come visit me in the U.S. It’s hard for her, but I will go back to Afghanistan to visit family,” Sonita says. “They told me they heard so many [of my] interviews. They watch my video and hear my song on a radio and they are happy for me. I think my mom is proud of me.” Sonita’s voice dips when she mentions her parents and loved ones from home. “I used to have four or five friends I shared my songs with. They said this is good. Now I miss them, I don’t have anyone here. But I am getting to have an education. I get to speak in their stead.”
Statistics about child marriage can be overwhelming. UNICED states that 700 millionwomen alive todaywere married before their 18th birthday, with one in three married before the age of 15. Strongheart Group believes this can change, especially if the world falls in love with one girl. “If your only connection points are big, statistical numbers, it is easy to look at complex problems like child marriage and be overwhelmed by a feeling that they are impossible to solve,” says Adams. “When you know someone who has personally dealt with an issue or you are moved by an individual’s story, then the problem becomes real and relevant.” Taking on child marriage as a teenager is ambitious but Sonita likes to aim high. She has a lot to say to anyone wanting to get involved.
“Just learning about child marriage and discussing how important this issue is can make a big difference,” she says. “For example: many kids here in developed countries, they play with toys, they play in playground. While other kids those ages in other countries have to take care of their kids. It’s a whole different reality. Just talking about these things and doing whatever you can to bring change is what I want to say.”
This September alone, Sonita was announced as a Girls Not Brides champion to end child marriage, joining Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She teamed up with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights Speak Truth to Power program to launch a series of lessons for high school students about child marriage. Chelsea Clinton interviewed her at a panel in front of thousands of people at the plenary session of final Clinton Global Initiative. She performed and answered their questions. Her words were amplified.
When asked what she wants to happen next, Sonita Alizadeh becomes childlike, listing off all of the things she could do, only unlike most kids, her track record suggests she might actually do it all. “I want to be a lawyer and a big time rapper. I want to lead my own NGO someday that helps women and children. I want to create advocacy campaigns, so girls in the future won’t become child brides…” She thinks the global community can do more to end forced marriage.
Anyone out there is welcome to join her.
Emily Sernaker is a writer and activist. She holds a MSc in Equality Studies from University College Dublin and currently studies Creative Writing at Pacific University. She lives in New York.