When Sonita Alizadeh was 10 years old, her mother told her she would be sold into child marriage. The arrangement didn't work out. Six years later, history repeated itself and the young Afghan girl was once again set to be sold to a new husband - the irony being that the price of her sale would go to her brother, so he in turn could purchase a bride of his own. Instead of submitting to being a human being for sale, Alizadeh rapped. She become a global sensation, and she burrowed her way out of being a paid for bride.
Alizadeh grew up in Afghanistan until her family fled to Iran to escape the Taliban. There, she worked as a cleaner while teaching herself to read and write - and rap. As she discovered music and began to record - defying Iranian law which explicitly prohibits women from singing - she started to garner international attention.
At the age of 16 when her mother tried to force her into marriage for a second time, Iranian documentary filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami intervened, offering her mother money if she gave Sonita six months of freedom. In that time, they recorded the powerful song and video that eventually propelled her to global stardom, 'Daughters for Sale' and uploaded it onto YouTube.
The video went viral and her fate was forever changed. It drew the attention of nonprofit Strongheart Group, which reached out to Alizadeh to bring her to the U.S., her family relented, and today Alizadeh is a global proponent of women's rights, a powerhouse rapper, a youth activist, and a tireless advocate for ending child marriage. She has shared stages with Nobel Laureates and heads of state, she has had a documentary made about about her; and she's helped develop a curriculum to end the tradition of child marriage. She is 21 years old.
How did you get into rap music in a country where the mere act of listening to it would have landed you in trouble with the authorities and what has it meant to you?
I started to learn music when I was attending classes at the Local NGO for undocumented Afghan refugees in Iran. First I wrote poetry, then I tried pop music, but my message was too much to fit into a pop song.
I saw my friends disappear from the classroom. They disappeared and had to stop coming to class because they were about to get married, which meant having children, while they were children themselves. Some of them were as young as twelve years old.
One day while I was cleaning an office building, I heard Eminem over the speakers. I couldn’t understand anything that he was saying, but I noticed that it was fast and powerful. I thought, “I can do that.” I started practicing, and I loved it. Of all the genres, rap made me feel good. It was amazing to me how we combine powerful words and phrases, all delivered in a melodic and rhyming way that captivates the soul and hearts of the listener. You can share your thoughts, good or bad experiences, your point of view, your way of life, and people relate to it.
It is not that the families hate their daughters, but rather they are trying to maintain the traditions of their elders and, sadly, because they don’t know any better.
Rap, music, and poetry have been outlets for me to express myself to the world. They let me tell my story. They’re platforms to share the words that are in my heart. In Iran, where I grew up as a refugee, I would rap about my friends who often came to school with bruises and broken spirits after arguing with their families and begging them not to sell them by marrying them off.
Women are not allowed to sing or perform alone in Iran. I was carrying my lyrics in my backpack walking through the streets of Tehran, holding tightly onto my bag. Police in Iran target people like me. It was always possible they might search my bag’s contents and open my notebook. If they did, they’d discover two things: I felt strongly about women’s rights, and I was a rapper. Rappers are the ones who speak about injustices and speak reality, and women are not supposed to speak out at all. So for me, it felt like carrying drugs or something illegal. But I didn't give up.
In Iran, where I grew up as a refugee, I would rap about my friends who often came to school with bruises and broken spirits after arguing with their families and begging them not to sell them by marrying them off.
Music is, and has always been, a very powerful tool for social change. I had to express myself and speak up about injustices and the pain of my friends. I am very happy I didn’t give up at the time because today I speak to world leaders and audiences all over the world to help them understand why and how we need to end child marriage. I plan to continue my advocacy work and use my music to bring positive change in the world. I will always sing about what is closest to my heart, and that is creating social change.
Did you ever imagine that the mere act of personal expression could lead to such gigantic changes to your life? How did you overcome any fears about possible consequences for asserting your voice and claiming your agency?
When my mother told me that I’d be getting married soon, I was devastated. My heart broke and it was very hard to imagine marrying someone I didn’t know. I wrote the song Brides for Sale, and someone helped me with the recording of the video. When I was making the music video for Brides for Sale, I didn’t expect the rap getting the public reaction that it did. I knew about the consequences of speaking up but I had to express my pain. My biggest goal was for my family to understand how I felt. Even though I knew it was dangerous, and of course it was scary, my hopes, my beliefs and my goals were bigger than my fears.
Your activism is deeply rooted in fighting child marriage. Growing up in Afghanistan, were you always aware of the eventuality of being sold? And if so, how did you prepare for it?
When I was attending classes at the NGO for Afghan refugees, I saw my friends disappear from the classroom. They disappeared and had to stop coming to class because they were about to get married, which meant having children, while they were children themselves. Some of them were as young as twelve years old and were getting married to much older men. It is not that the families hate their daughters, but rather they are trying to maintain the traditions of their elders and, sadly, because they don’t know any better.
Women are not allowed to sing or perform alone in Iran. I was carrying my lyrics in my backpack walking through the streets of Tehran, holding tightly onto my bag. It felt like carrying drugs.
My mother was a child bride and didn't meet her husband until the wedding day, so I always knew it was supposed to be my future too. I was about to get married once when I was 10, but that arrangement fell apart. And then there was another arrangement for my marriage when I was 16. By marrying me at a young age, my mother was simply repeating the cycle. As a young child I watched my older sisters get married and their lives dramatically change. They became old women with broken souls and no hope for their future. I did not want that for myself. I could not imagine following their path and I know they didn’t want that life either. They did not have a choice.
My mother was a child bride and didn't meet her husband until the wedding day, so I always knew it was supposed to be my future too.
Eventually, in Iran I learned how to make a Dreams Book. In it, I put pictures of the things I want to do and create in my life, even when they seem impossible. First I imagine it, then I make a picture of it on paper, then I talk about it like it is real, then I work very, very hard for it. This helped me have a vision for much more in my life. Once I had a vision and also was making music, I felt like nothing could stop me and then I knew I could not get married.
I want all girls to have a vision and a choice and be able to decide for themselves.
You clearly feel a responsibility to help girls who do not have the same tenacity and fight as you. How important is community in fighting oppression and creating real change in the world?
Oppression cannot be fought without the power of community. In order to solve problems, we have to work together. Many youth who are working to end child marriage know this.
Every year 12 million new girls are forced to marry.
My friend Joanita in Uganda started the Rainbow Smiles Foundation. They work to prevent child marriage by educating the community, and also reintegrating girls who are escaping their marriages back into their families and communities. It’s hard work. They work with parents, teachers and schools and community leaders. The program looks at the girl’s whole context; her community, her family, the whole context of child marriage.
They know that unless the community understands and believes in the freedom, rights and possibility of a girl, her situation will never truly change. It is slow but important work. I know several youth who work with religious leaders to help them understand the harm of child marriage. Religious leaders are often very important parts of communities. They can play a big role in changing bad traditions and fighting oppression.
I know you look at the issue of child marriage in a more holistic way, understanding that it is not isolated and instead intersects with things like education, mental health, economic parity and so on. Will you begin to expand the issues you address?
Yes! Child marriage is not an isolated issue. Health, mental health, education, the economy are all factors that impact and/or are impacted by child marriage. Even climate change is related. Ending child marriage is actually Sustainable Development Goal 5.3. But if we don’t end child marriage, we can’t achieve EIGHT of the other SDGs.
Let me give you some examples:
When a girl marries young, she’s almost always taken out of school. Being uneducated has so many consequences, but one is that that girl is less likely to get a good job, which can then help her family rise above poverty. Girls without education are 3 times as likely to marry by 18 as those with a secondary or higher education.
Girls who are married young also have babies before their bodies are ready. That causes so many medical problems for the girls — I have seen this in my friends — and the babies suffer too. They get sick and die, malnutrition is a big problem. Newborn deaths are 50% higher for girls under 20 than for those who are older.
Girls without education are 3 times as likely to marry by 18 as those with a secondary or higher education.
And then there is mental health. One of my friends got married when she was 11. On the day of her marriage she disappeared. We were all looking for her all day but couldn't find her. The father was worried about his honor. At the end of the day her mom found her under their bed. She was hiding there all day so that she would not have to get married. When they sent her to her husband’s house after the ceremony, she didn't want to have sex. She was sitting on the side of the bed all curled up. Her husband had slapped her after some argument. We saw her blood on the wall the next day and her face was bruised. For most of these girls marriage is a traumatic experience. Imagine their mental health.
Child marriage is also a refugee issue. Parents often think that their daughters will be safer with a husband. They want to know someone will protect and feed her. Since rape is common during war, they want to know that her honor will be upheld so they marry her off, but the consequences are actually devastating. Right now the numbers of child brides who are Syrian refugees is rising, and that is just what is reported.
Creativity is definitely a powerful tool for change. My music changed my family’s mind about my future. It helped them understand something they didn’t understand before.
I know this can be very overwhelming, but I also think that it is an opportunity. If we see these relationships, we can understand the problem better and see so many more possible solutions. We can all work on ending child marriage starting inside the issues that we already care about. Nothing will really change if we don’t all work together, so let’s start!
You are a musician and an activist which is very typical of our generation. Never doing just one thing. How important do you think creativity is as a tool for change?
Creativity is definitely a powerful tool for change. My music changed my family’s mind about my future. It helped them understand something they didn’t understand before. We need creative solutions for different problems around the world. For example, speaking out against injustices through rap is powerful. People pay attention to the words. They listen. That being said, everyone has their own authentic way of expressing and sharing what they care about. The most important thing for young people is finding an outlet that works for them — writing, painting, singing — and expressing their feelings about the issues they care most about. Then share. If we are quiet and we do nothing, nothing changes.
Why do you think so many young people are speaking out today? Do you think they will continue to as they get older or is this just a mark of youth?
Young people speak out when the situation has gotten so bad that something has to change, and when they don’t believe any more that the older generation will do something. Youth have always led big social change. I hope that young people take their beliefs and visions for a better world into their adulthood. I have faith that my generation will.
What advice would you give to young girls facing a lack of agency, much like you did?
I really want women to know and feel that they have power. I want girls and women to know that they can hold a vision for themselves, believe in themselves and be strong. There will always be hurdles and challenges in the way of what they want to achieve. It would have been almost impossible for me to get to where I am if I would not have had a vision or believed in myself. Therefore, it is very, very important for girls themselves to believe in who they are, and to believe that they can become something great. To hold this hope and vision in their heads and their hearts and work really hard to achieve that.
What’s next for you and how can people help?
There are so many exciting possibilities! I have a beautiful image of this world in mind — where everyone can dream big dreams, no child is forced to marry and everyone is able to go to school — and I believe it can be created. So what’s next for me will always involve working toward this goal.
Young people speak out when the situation has gotten so bad that something has to change, and when they don’t believe any more that the older generation will do something.
Right now it is important that I continue my education. I didn’t ever go to school until I arrived in America in 2015. Now I am a high school graduate and I plan to go to college next year. I have been very lucky to be able to share my thoughts, ideas, story and messages, especially about child marriage, with the world.
But my story is just one story. And every year 12 million new girls are forced to marry. Even though there are similarities, there are also so many differences. I want more of their stories and messages, thoughts and ideas to be taken seriously. I want the young people everywhere who are doing the brave and bold work to end child marriage to be supported and heard, because they are the ones who understand the problem and have the creative, interesting and new ideas. I am raising funds for them through this site. I hope you’ll join me.
I will also always continue to write new music. I am working on a few new songs right now. My music will always be about what matters to me, both the problems and solutions that the world needs to see. Ultimately, I want to keep making music and be a catalyst for change.
*This article is published in partnership with Irregular Labs, a Gen Z-run think tank and studio dedicated to building and bringing the opinions, insights and imaginations of girl and gender nonconforming Gen Zs to the world. We are one of 30 global youth platform partners in the launch of an initiative by Irregular Labs (@weareirregular) and (@ChimeForChange) CHIME FOR CHANGE to explore gender and our fluid future. Check out the other content and partner platforms in the LINK HERE.