SEATTLE, Washington — Born in Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war, Sonita Alizadeh’s advocacy for women’s liberation stems from her own experience. As far back as the early 1900s, progressive leaders have attempted to improve women’s status, raise the marriage age and abolish the price for brides, which was the heaviest household expense for rural communities. However, with interpretations of Islamic practices in Afghanistan varying regionally, attempts to modernize gender roles were heavily contested by those in favor of protecting their traditional, kinship-ordered, patriarchal social structure.
A Brief History
Because child brides and price represented a way to end feuds, solidify family alliances, accumulate wealth or increase a family’s prestige, traditional communities revolted against the limitations in 1989. Along with the Mujahideen, they overthrew the government in 1992. The Mujahideen’s violent campaign killed tens of thousands of civilians until religious students using pre-Islamic tribal codes and interpretation of sharia formed the Taliban, an oppositional army that asserted power in 1996.
Sonita Alizadeh was born in 1998. At that time, the Taliban reverted women’s rights, reasserted child marriage and inflicted such rates of sexual and physical violence that “more than six million Afghans moved to neighboring countries mostly Iran and Pakistan.” Sonita’s family was among them. The violent resistance movement that followed framed the childhood Sonita experienced. The Taliban’s armed opposition inflicted such rates of sexual and physical violence that women often chose suicide over forced marriage or continued abuse.
“Brides for Sale”
As an undocumented refugee, Sonita could not attend school in Iran. Instead, she cleaned offices to help her family survive. However, a local NGO, focused on supporting refugees, provided Sonita with trauma counseling and basic education. It gave her a way to express herself through music and poetry. Sonita fell in love with rap and the way she could use beats as a space to share her message lyrically. Although it was illegal for girls to rap alone, she began using her agency to write lyrics that held the power to change attitudes and perceptions. Her first song was about child labor.
Staff at the NGO introduced Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, a filmmaker looking to produce a documentary about child labor, to Sonita. Maghami decided to make a documentary on Sonita’s experiences. During the first year of filming, Sonita’s family decided to sell her into marriage. Sonita knew her mother had been a child bride and was merely following the cultural practice, but Sonita wanted more for herself and her peers at risk of the same fate.
Realizing Sonita’s determination to share her story through rap, Maghami helped her secretly record a music video for her rap “Brides for Sale.” In the video, Sonita is dressed as a child bride with a bruised face and barcode on her head. Maghami reached out to activists she knew with the music video and refocused her documentary on Sonita’s experience and advocacy. She knew that Sonita would need more immediate and direct assistance. Blurring the line between filmmaker and subject, Maghami paid the bride price herself to secure Sonita’s immediate safety and forged ahead on the documentary.
Media Enables Action
Sonita’s video quickly went viral, catching international attention. After staff at the Strongheart Group saw the video, Sonita’s story changed. The Strongheart Group is an American based nonprofit focused on uplifting an individual’s experience to enact social change. It provided Sonita with a scholarship to leave Iran to attend high school in Utah and continued to amplify her video, resulting in continued financial support from Strongheart supporters.
When “Sonita” aired in Amsterdam in 2015, Sonita’s advocacy reached an even more expansive international audience. Quickly rising to acclaim, the film won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition, starting a critical conversation about child brides and affording Sonita with more support and resources.
Girls Not Brides
Sonita Alizadeh’s advocacy through rap overcame a culture of invisibility following years of oppression. It gave her a platform to fight for the equality of other Afghani and Iranian women. The documentary caught the attention of Girls Not Brides, an organization supporting girls to reach their full potential. It advocates on a national, regional and international level to end child marriage.
Girls Not Brides partnered with Sonita as a champion of its cause. It helped open doors for her to raise awareness for child marriage-related issues. Sonita continues to use this partnership to speak from global stages, meet world leaders and perform for international crowds. Since her music video went viral and “Sonita” was aired, she has been featured in more than “200 media outlets across 20 countries.”
The Future for Girls in Afghanistan
It is illegal to marry a child under 15 years old in Afghanistan. However, in 2017, 9 percent of girls married before they turned 15 and 35 percent of girls married before turning 18 years old. Working alongside Girls Not Brides, Sonita uses her story to “help people and communities understand problems more clearly and understand why [child marriage]must stop.”
Sonita Alizadeh’s advocacy through sharing her lived experience allows her to depict exactly how “child marriage violates fundamental human rights like education, equality, health and freedom from violence.” By taking a radical stance as a young girl, Sonita risked her personal security to amplify her story worldwide. She gained the attention of global leadership and civil society, showing the importance of organizing through community work, education and policy to enact legal protections against child marriage.
– Sarae Simpson