Brides for sale… no more

Sonita Alizadeh at Wasatch Academy, Utah. Photo: Special Arrangement

Sonita Alizadeh at Wasatch Academy, Utah. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: by email

Child marriage (where the bride, groom or both are below the age of 18), is a human rights violation. Yet, one-third of the girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18, and one in nine is married before the age of 15, as reported by the International Center for Research on Women.

Sonita Alizadeh, born into a conservative Muslim family in Herat, Afghanistan, could have become one such statistic. Instead, she has become the face of a global campaign to end the regressive social custom, by arming herself with an unlikely weapon — rap music.

The young activist’s story was recently highlighted in the documentary Sonita in November 2015, directed by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. The film follows Sonita over three years, showing her life as a child labourer in Tehran, and her growth as a poet and rapper (influenced by Iranian rapper Yas and US star Eminem) despite her widowed mother’s disapproval and the legal ban on female musicians in Iran.

As one of the many impoverished Afghan families fleeing the Taliban regime, the Alizadehs had migrated to Iran, in the hope of creating a new life. And like many of the illegal immigrant children in Iran, Sonita was unable to attend school, due to lack of documentation. She earned her keep by cleaning bathrooms in Tehran, while teaching herself to read and write.

In 2014, her ability to pen thought-provoking lyrics helped Sonita, then 16, win a $1,000 prize in a contest to write an anthem promoting the Afghan elections. She sent it to her mother, who had moved back to Afghanistan.

That victory came with a new development: Sonita’s mother wanted her to return to Afghanistan, so that she could be married to her ‘buyer’, which in turn would ease the way for her brother to ‘purchase’ a bride.

Her mother had fixed a bride price of $9,000 for Sonita, so that her brother could afford to marry a girl for $7,000. “It’s not a transaction; it’s a marriage,” she is heard insisting in a clip from the documentary.

Director Ghaemmaghami paid her $2,000 in return for six months’ reprieve for the teenager. During this time, Sonita recorded the song ‘Brides for Sale’ and uploaded the video on YouTube. The ensuing attention got her an offer from the American non-profit Strongheart Group, for a student visa to come to the US for her first taste of formal education.

Now an 18-year-old student at the Wasatch Academy in Utah and reconciled with her mother, Sonita shared her experiences and hopes for the future with MetroPlus through an e-mail interview. Excerpts:

How has life changed since you became a full-time student in Utah? Do you think of your days as a child labourer, or of the friends you left behind in Iran?

The biggest change of my life was coming to America. Although it was very hard in the beginning, I am now in a real school for the first time in my life. This makes me infinitely happy. Also, I am safe for the first time, and no one wants to sell me, so I feel peaceful.

Sometimes, I think the most difficult moments in life were actually good, because they made me strong. I was a child labourer. From this, I learned to stand on my own feet. So, I don’t want to forget the difficulty of my life. In order to see truly where I am and where I want to go, I need to remember where I once was.

I miss my family, friends and my country. Fortunately, every day I call my mother and I talk with my family.

What does music mean to you?

When I was a little girl, I did not listen to music much. I did not think that one day I would become a rapper. I was born in a very traditional and religious family. Being female was destroying my dreams. Slowly, first through poetry and then music, I began to find ways to share my thoughts and feelings, talk to my family and to the world.

And then I found rap. Rap helped me share my story. With rap, there is enough space to share a bigger message. Rap, for me, is not just a style of music. Rap is a way to tell the stories of many girls. It helped save my life. Now, I am studying music at school and I love it. My favourite instruments are the piano and the guitar.

In future, will you rely on your music alone to try and change attitudes towards women?

I hope that I will always be making music and rapping for women’s rights. But my work is becoming more than just that. Forced marriage is one of the world’s biggest problems. I am using my story and my voice to work with other organisations that are trying to put an end to child marriage. I want to help families leave this tradition behind and create new ways for themselves and their daughters.

Has the documentary and the resulting international attention helped you, or has it brought you threats from conservative groups?

The documentary Sonita has helped me and is introducing my goal of ending child marriage to the world. I can say with full confidence that this film has changed my life. I will always be grateful to Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. I was very lucky to become friends with her, because she helped me make the music video and record my song (‘Brides for Sale’). It changed my life. There are millions of girls in the world who are forced to marry and don’t have someone to help transform their lives. I hope that I can be a voice for all of them.

So far, the response to my music, my story and the film has been very positive. I am very moved by the way people have supported me.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2020 6:22:28 PM |

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