An Afghan Refugee Is Using Rap to Speak Out Against Child Marriage

20-year-old activist Sonita Alizadeh talks protest songs and beyond.

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May 24 2017, 2:30pm

Josh Separzadeh

This story appeared in the Restless Youth issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Until the age of 16, Sonita Alizadeh had known little other than war, poverty, and segregation. She grew up under Taliban rule, and her family fled war-torn Afghanistan for Iran when she turned eight. With no claim to asylum, Alizadeh was denied access to formal education in Tehran. She went to school at an NGO dedicated to educating refugees, where she also worked cleaning bathrooms. In her free time, she enjoyed listening to rap, and she developed a fascination with the revolutionary potential of protest songs.

Alizadeh's life took a dramatic turn when her mother announced that she would be sold to an Afghan family for $9,000 in order to earn the dowry her family needed for her brother's bride. In Afghanistan, the legal age of marriage for women is 16 years old, but 15 is allowed with the father's consent. Embattled by a family decision that would most likely sentence her to a life of subordination and ruin her artistic ambitions, Alizadeh wrote the rap song "Daughters for Sale," denouncing the archaic traditions that underpin forced marriage. She then released a music video with the help of Iranian documentary maker Ghaem Maghami, who paid her family to put off the wedding. The Strongheart Group, a nonprofit advocacy and public-relations organization, heard her story and offered her a scholarship to Wasatch Academy in Utah.

I talked with Alizadeh, now 20 years old, about how music saved her life and how she hopes it will save others' as well.

VICE: When you first started listening to rap, did you immediately recognize it as a platform to spearhead social change?

Sonita Alizadeh: I was drawn to rap's influence on social change. It's a genre that emboldens the importance of the issues it tackles. It's also the most effective medium to tell my story and engage an audience.

Were you socially involved before you started rapping?

I have always felt the need to speak out against injustices I witnessed in society. I first started performing on the stage in plays about child labor. I noticed my friends coming to school with bruises and broken spirits from begging their families not to sell them into marriage. So I wrote poems and turned them into rap songs.

You were destined for a different fate had you not written "Daughters for Sale." How do you measure the impact of your song?

My music and my story have inspired friends back home to stand up to their families and escape forced marriage. Unfortunately, most people I know were already married and had children by the time I arrived in the US. On the bright side, these friends want to set a different path for their daughters and educate their sons about the woes of child marriage. People all over the world told me my music has impact their lives and inspired them to make change in their communities.

Women advocating for the end of child marriage often face reprisals. Do you encourage them to participate in public life nonetheless?

Female public figures in conservative societies are indeed threatened for defying the status quo, but giving up on advocacy is not an option. Only women who raise their voices can spark real change. Our opponents can intimidate us, but they can't silence us. We will echo the voices of women and girls in real danger. My advice to young female advocates is to keep these girls' hopes and dreams alive.

Child marriage continues to plague the condition of women globally. What does your activism look like today, and how has your new life in the United States shaped it?

When I first came to the US, most of my classmates couldn't grasp the global prevalence of child marriage. I was devoted to helping end child marriage but wasn't contextualizing it. With access to more information, I explored the roots of child marriage at the local and national level. I shared my story with experts and leaders, emphasizing the economic and social environments that underpin child marriage, and also the false narrative around child marriage being the safest path for girls. I am working with the Strongheart Group and organizations like Girls Not Brides to promote policy and behavioral changes, with a focus on education.

Can you advance the cause of women and girls without changing norms and values?
Social progress cannot be imposed; it has to be channeled through civil society. Child marriage is deeply rooted in poverty and lack of education and security. But we need to educate everyone: those affected, those uninformed about child marriage, and leaders who can reform it. But nothing will change without involving families at the grassroots level.

How do you envision your life after you graduate high school?

I want to go to college, produce music, and continue my advocacy work. I'm writing a new song about uniting Afghanistan. I want to instill young people with an empowering vision for their future. I will be launching a global rap challenge, gathering youth from all over the world to write and rap about ending child marriage.