Nineteen-year-old Sonita Alizadeh was just 10 and an Afghan refugee in Iran when her parents first tried to sell her into marriage. Now, through defiantly eloquent rap music, she protests against the practice of child brides

When has life really challenged you and how did you respond?

Life has always been challenging as an Afghan girl living in a war-torn country and then a refugee in poverty. My family fled to Iran when I was eight to escape the Taliban. I was denied a formal education but learned to read and write at an NGO for Afghan refugees. My family wanted to sell me into marriage to pay my brother’s dowry. I turned to the only activity that brought me comfort: I would write songs, lean my face into a microphone and rap.

When was your passion for women’s empowerment sparked?

One by one, I saw my friends disappear from the classroom. They left to get married, which meant having children while they were children themselves. Some were as young as 12 and getting married to much older men. It isn’t that the families hate their daughters, but they are trying to maintain the traditions of their elders and, sadly, they don’t know any better. My mother was a child bride and didn’t meet her husband until their wedding day.

Can rap change lives?

I think so. Rap, music, and poetry have been outlets for me to express myself to the world. They let me tell my story; to share the words in my heart. I would rap about my friends who came to school with bruises and broken spirits after begging their families not to sell them. My music changed my family’s mind. Now, I am somewhere that I never imagined I would be. Rap is powerful. People pay attention to the words. They listen. It can help change their minds and then, hopefully, their behaviour.

Rap is powerful. People pay attention to the words. It can help change their minds

What does a day in your life look like?

I live in Utah in a dorm at my school. A typical day for me is classes at school, doing my homework, hanging out with my friends, practicing my music and working on my campaigns. My days are full, but I like knowing that I am moving forward.

Where does your resilience and self-belief come from?

From having goals. Holding big ideas and believing in them has changed my life and keeps me on my feet. Otherwise we are travellers with no destination. Being determined gives me resilience and it empowers me to fight through challenges. I also believe that rough patches make us stronger and wiser.

What excites you about the future?

I have a beautiful image of this world in mind and I believe it can be created. My vision is a place where no child is forced to marry and everyone is able to go to school. My personal goal is to produce music for the world to enjoy and ultimately to be a catalyst for change.

How do you negotiate the differences between Afghanistan and the US?

Life in the US was very hard for me in the beginning. I wasn’t able to understand the language at all, but now it’s easier for me to connect with people. It’s been a year and a half since I came here and I’ve learned a lot about the culture.

My goal is to produce music for the world to enjoy and to be a catalyst for change

How can people tackle child marriage?

Educate themselves. Child marriage is not as simple as it seems. Poverty, tradition and lack of education all play a role. Find out where your country stands on the issue. Did you know that child marriage happens almost everywhere in the world?

How do young Afghans feel about the future?

Despite the everyday challenges they face, young Afghans are optimistic. During the Taliban regime, the sole purpose of a woman was reduced to serving her husband. It is better now. Although more than half of the already small percentage of girls attending school will have to leave their studies, we have girls like Malala and me who stand up. Every teenage girl out there is Sonita Alizadeh and Malala Yousafzai. Our efforts to promote and educate may not benefit us directly, but hopefully they will positively affect the future.

Sonita is the subject of a documentary, Sonita, by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami

Image: Josh Separzadeh

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