Sonita Alizadeh

What would you do with 9000$? 

Buy a bunch of iPhones? Perhaps a used car? A two week vacation? Sonita’s family wanted to buy a bride for her brother - and were willing to sell her for it.

Sonita Alizadeh was born in Herat, a rural town in Afghanistan, in 1996 - precisely when the Taliban took the country by storm, immediately imposing an extremely conservative set of rules, the Sharia Law - amongst other restrictions, women aren't allowed to study, work or even leave the house without being accompanied by a man. Born into a large family, and a reality where girls are seen as little more than financial encumbrance, her future looked bleak. According to Sonita herself, her childhood can be summed up in two words:hunger and fear.

Alizadeh (which means “swallow”) is quickly confronted with the cruelest side of her reality. At 9 years old she loses her father, and at the same time her mother lets her know that she has found her a husband. Afghani law forbids that any girl marries before age 16 (15, with her father’s permission), but the reality is different, even today: about 15% of all Afghani girls get married before 15. Her own mother was wedded off at only 12 years of age. Back then, Sonita wasn’t able to fully understand what was going on, on account of her tender age.

By luck or misfortune, the wedding didn’t go through, since Alizadeh’s family decided to flee to Iran, in an attempt to escape Taliban oppression. The only way to cross the border was to bribe the guards, who threatened to kidnap Sonita and her sister, to be sold for profit. For the first time, she gains awareness that, in this part of the world, women are but merchandise. Now in Tehran, Sonita is left in a centre for refugee children, where she learns how to read and write. Without any papers, the only job she can get is cleaning at the same centre that took her in. That’s where she meets other girls in the same situation as hers and starts to gain consciousness of the real scope of the problem.

This is also where she discovers her passion: music. And a very particular genre speaks to her - rap. The frenetic rhythm and underlying anger resonate to her core. Two artists move her particularly: Iranian rapper Yas, and household name Eminem. Driven by suffering and injustice - not only her own, but that of all those around her - Sonita starts writing poetry and performing secret shows to her friends.

The tide seems to be turning for Sonita. In 2014 she enters a US based contest asking for songs rallying the Afghani people to get out and vote in the upcoming elections. Sonita wins the contest and is awarded a 1000$ prize - and immediately sends the money to her mother, who had returned to Afghanistan. Right around this time, Sonita’s mother pays her a visit. She’s ecstatic. She runs to hug her mother, whilst tears cascade down her face. They haven’t seen each other in over 3 years. But this visit wasn’t quite so innocent..

9000$. That’s the price Sonita’s mother thinks she’ll be able to fetch for her. That’s also the amount needed for her brother to buy himself a bride of his own. Her mother tells her she has to return to Afghanistan. “There's a man, and he's waiting for you”. Sonita, distraught, asks her mother: “How can you sell your daughter?”. Her mom, intuitively, lays the age old truth: “It’s tradition”. And so it is, in fact, until this day.

Again, the outlook is bleak. But Sonita refuses to give up.

Two years prior, while reaching out to other artists and musicians, Sonita grabbed the attention of Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. Being a female artist in a hostile environment herself, Sonita’s story inspired Rokhsareh into making a documentary - the internationally acclaimed and multi award winning “Sonita”, focusing on Alizadeh’s day-to-day over around three years of her life in the centre.

Upended by these unheartning news, they banded up. Rokhsareh paid 2000$ to Sonita’s mother, in a way to buy an extra 6 months of freedom for the 16 year old rapper. Sonita used this time the best she could: she wrote “Daughters for Sale”, based on not only her experience but also on those of all the girls she met. Rokhsareh directed the video and they put it up on YouTube. This simple act was, on its own, incredibly dangerous, since in Iran, where she was living at the time, it is forbidden for women to sing solo without a special permission from the government.

The Song was an instant hit. The video, which features Sonita in a wedding gown, all bruised and with a barcode tattooed on her forehead, struck a chord not only with Afghani women but with the global population. In a matter of weeks, Sonita was contacted by the Strongheart Group - an American NGO that helps artists who use their means of expression  to raise awareness for social issues - who have offered her a full scholarship to study music in the USA.

After, under secrecy and with a lot of work, going back to Afghanistan and getting the papers needed for her to travel, Sonita finally did it. She made it to the USA and attended a High School specializing in music teaching. “In the beginning it was really hard”, Alizadeh tells us, “All I knew how to say was “hi” and “bye”. But now I’m getting straight A’s.

Today, Sonita is a happy woman. She goes to Bard’s College in NY, and spends her time between school, concerts and her activism. Her new dream is to attend Harvard Law, so she can go back to Afghanistan and start fighting for women’s rights in her own country. She does not hold a grudge against her mother. She understands she was a victim of systemic misogyny as well: “Everyone had told her that she was a woman and had no value. This is what her family has told her and that is what she believed. My music was a nightmare for her. Now, she is one of my biggest fans. My family, they changed their minds," Sonita says. "If I can change their minds with my music, then maybe I can change the world.”.

Sonita is still single, by choice. Today there is no man waiting for her. Only her future, and she will be the one who steers it.