Sonita Alizadeh begins her song “Brides for Sale” in a whisper. “Women must remain silent” she says before her voice gains resonance and she slams child marriage, relating it to raising animals for slaughter.
“Let me scream,” she raps, “I am tired of the silence. Lift your hands off me. I feel suffocated.”
Alizadeh is just one of a few female rappers from Afghanistan. She expressed her feelings by writing lyrics when her parents attempted to force her to marry a stranger at the age of 16.
Despite her protests, the marriage nearly went through.
In Sonita, a documentary about her life that will premier in Amsterdam next month, Alizadeh listens in as her mother and another woman discuss the price that the groom will pay in exchange for the marriage. Such “bride prices” in many parts of South Asia and Africa and often play a part in perpetuating child marriage among low-income people.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 14 million girls a year are married before they reach the age of 18. That’s about 39,000 a day.
Patriarchal traditions and lack of alternatives for women perpetuates the phenomenon in places like Afghanistan.
“In my country a good girl should be silent. [She’s told] don’t talk about her future, and listen to her family even if they say you have to marry him or him or him,” Alizadeh said in an interview at the Women in the World Summit earlier this month. “A good girl is like a dog, who they play with…But I am a singer and I want a shiny future.”
Her musical talents helped to save the Afghan teenager from the fate that so many of her peers have suffered — but it almost wasn’t enough.
In a heartbreaking exchange from the forthcoming documentary played at the Summit, Alizadeh tries to convince her mother not to marry her off. Her mother, who was herself married at the age of 14, tells her flatly that her bride price is needed to pay for the price of her brother’s bride. Here’s their conversation:
ALIZADEH: “Can’t you see that I am so busy? I haven’t recorded my songs yet and you want to sell me in Afghanistan right now!”
MOTHER: “I am not interested in your songs!”
ALIZADEH: “Then just what about me interests you?”
MOTHER: “I am interested in marrying you off.”
ALIZADEH: “You’ll waste my potential if you marry me off.”
MOTHER: “Your brother will get married.”
ALIZADEH: “Don’t you care about my feelings? My wasted potential?”
MOTHER: “I have no other way.”
Luckily for Alizadeh, her song catapulted her to fame in Afghanistan, and caught the attention of international media. Her success helped her parents to come to terms with the fact that their daughter has a lot to offer the world before she gets married.
“It means so much to me that my family went against our tradition for me,” she said. “Now I’m somewhere that I never imagined I could be.”
Alizadeh is currently attending boarding school in America where she’s focusing on developing her musical abilities.