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This Teen Rapper Wants to Be Afghanistan's Answer to Rihanna

Mar 10 2016 6:00 PM
This Teen Rapper Wants to Be Afghanistan's Answer to Rihanna

Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Sonita Alizadeh narrowly escaped becoming a child bride. Now the subject of her own documentary, "Sonita," the 19-year-old wants to become a pop star that other Afghan girls can look up to.

There's a scene in Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's documentary, Sonita, in which a group of school-aged girls are sat in a classroom in Tehran talking about boys. It's typical teenage chat, apart from the fact the boys they're giggling about aren't boys—they're men—and the conversation centres around not who likes who, but when they'll get married and the price they can fetch as wives. Sonita Alizadeh, the namesake of the film, is worth $9,000.

Sonita was eight years old when she and her family fled Afghanistan and the Taliban for the Iranian capital of Tehran. For the next decade she would live as an undocumented illegal immigrant with one of her sisters, her sister's children, and a brother in various cramped rooms in the city. Although life in Iran was far from straightforward for Sonita, there's little doubt that if she had stayed in her family's home in Herat she would not have been able to discover and pursue her main passion: rap music.

In an ideal world, says Sonita at the beginning of the film, Rihanna would be her mother. In the real world, she tries her best to be her. From the pictures of US dollars she sticks in her notebook, to the way she performs to her adoring school friends, Riri's influence on the teen is clear.

"I have a cousin who is a social worker and one day she asked me to meet Sonita because she wanted to record music and needed help," filmmaker Maghami says of how she initially got to know Sonita. "I went and met her and after a while I became interested in her story and decided to make a movie about her."

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Maghami's resulting documentary follows Sonita as she endeavors to get her music made (in a country where, don't forget, it is illegal for women to perform solos), so she can better express, and rally against, the oppression she and countless others suffer at the hands of their families.

It's not hard to see how Sonita inspired Maghami to make a film about her. Sonita's musical talent, outspokenness, and determination to achieve, rather than sit back and accept her fate, are all traits that are, sadly, not often seen in Afghan girls. Even though it has been almost 15 years since the fall of the Taliban—under whose rule girls and women were forbidden to leave the house without a male escort, work or seek medical help from a male doctor—progress for women's rights has been slow, and Afghanistan is still one of the hardest and most dangerous places to be a woman.

"The first song that I wrote was about child labor," Sonita, now 19, tells me over the phone from Missouri where she is attending a film festival. "I had to do child labor myself and I wanted to share my feelings with others. But my family didn't know that I was singing and rapping then. I was scared of telling them because I wasn't sure if they'd like it. They're very traditional."

Part of being a "very traditional" family means selling a daughter as a bride, so that a brother or son can buy a wife. It's a practice that is still rife across much of Afghanistan, and girls are often used as bartering tools between families. While the legal age of marriage for women is 16, and the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Law criminalizes child marriage, the law is rarely enforced and familial tradition often holds more sway in matters meant for the court. It is, of course, a problem not restricted to Afghanistan. This week, UNICEF reported that 25 percent of the world's women were once child brides.

It is this tradition that inspired Sonita to write "Brides for Sale:" a song which would see her receive international attention and change the course of her life. The video, in which Sonita not so much raps but pleads into the camera wearing a wedding dress with a barcode painted onto her forehead, has had upwards of 367,000 views on YouTube. At the end of last year Sonita was named as one of the BBC's 100 Women of 2015.

"When my mother was trying to force me into marriage I wasn't mad at her because I knew that she was a child bride and she didn't know other ways," Sonita says. That thinking is now the very thing Sonita seeks to change through her rapping and campaigning.

However, had Maghami not stepped in with $2,000 in exchange for six more months of freedom for Sonita, she would have had little choice but to follow her mother back to Afghanistan and repeat the life she had led. Handing over the money was a difficult decision for Maghami, not least because of the way in which it blurred the lines between documentary-maker and subject. "As a person, a human being I wanted to give the money," says Maghami. "But as a filmmaker, I thought it would kill my movie."

Shortly after, Sonita was offered a scholarship to study music at the Wasatch Academy in Utah. She has been studying there for the last couple of years, away from the threat of forced marriage. "Now I'm a student I feel safe and am allowed to learn what I want to learn," she says. "If I was in Afghanistan, I would have children and wouldn't be able to think about my future."

Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Sonita's family have yet to see the documentary, but she's no longer worried about what they might think. "Now they support me and my choices and they realize I have power in the world. Really, I want to support them—it's not just about myself."

Indeed, Sonita is emphatic that she is not the only one who should benefit from her experience and education. "I'm trying to learn something here so I can go back to my country and help other people and to show them other possibilities," she says. "It is my goal to tell my story, which is the story of many, many girls around the world."

Read More: Growing Up Muslim in a Post-9/11 World

Some of those girls are Sonita's friends. They are the girls that "continue to inspire the issues I rap about," she says. "When I started rapping they were my first fans. And now they share my songs with other people to get out my message and to raise awareness. Rokhsareh changed my life with this documentary, and now I'm able to change the life of other girls. If I can change a life for one girl, she will go on to change a life for another girl."

I ask Maghami what it has been like witnessing Sonita's journey. "It is my greatest achievement," she says without hesitation. "I hope that people get from the documentary that changing their lives is not very difficult. There is a lot of potential in children and it is our responsibility to help them."

But Sonita is only just beginning. "My biggest wish is to see the end of child marriage in one generation," she says. "But I can't do it by myself. I have to work with other people and other organisations that are trying to end child marriage. I really need help from others.

Sonita will be shown as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival which runs from 9 - 18 March in London.

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