Sonita Alizadeh’s story, is a common one in Afghanistan. Girls as young as 9-years old are sold by their families as brides to older men, sometimes to pay off debt, but more often as a means of income in this impoverished country.
In the 2016 Sundance film, Sonita, about her life, a poignant scene cuts to the heart of the situation: Sonita’s mother discusses with a friend her daughter’s potential “value”. From a suitor they might get “$6,000, or maybe as much as $9,000.” As the discussion proceeds, 16-year old Sonita sits in the foreground, looking down in silence. Abuse of girls and women is common after marriage in Afghanistan and, according to Sonita, females are treated like dogs.
In the film, Sonita’s fate appears a foregone conclusion. Like other Afghan girls, she will be forced to accommodate her culture’s expectations. But as a talented and outspoken teenager, Sonita decided to change her future by posting a video on YouTube with the help of Iranian filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who was documenting her life.
After listening to music by rapper Eminem, Sonita fell in love with rap. Unable to understand the lyrics, it was nonetheless clear that the songwriter was expressing his anger through the song. Sonita decided to emulate both the artist and the rap genre, expressing her desperate displeasure with the reality she is facing. In the video, Sonita is wearing a bridal gown, but her face is graphically bruised. She raps lyrically words that wield an enormous power in their simple truth.
“Like other girls, I am caged. I am seen as a sheep grown only to be devoured.
They repeat that it is time to sell me. I am a person too, these are my eyes and ears.
Have you ever seen a sheep complaining about death? Have you ever seen a sheep, as emotional as I am?
I know you gave birth to me, how can I repay?”
Days after uploading, her video became an Internet sensation.
As the video was going viral, Maghami was by Sonita’s side. Prior to the release, Maghami was faced with the question of how her filming of Sonita’s life would end. Rather than watch Sonita marry, Maghami asked to pay Sonita’s mother $2,000 for a six-month extension. The film then focuses on her attempts to save Sonita from the horrors of childhood marriage.
The Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah learned of Sonita’s circumstances through both the film’s early exposure and Sonita’s YouTube video. The school decided to offer Sonita a high school scholarship. This enabled Sonita to apply for a passport and student visa to come to the United States.
Sonita’s story is heart wrenching. The film is an intimate examination into the lives of young refugee girls, many like Sonita who have no documentation, who are living in Iran and Afghanistan.
In the film Sonita raps to her friends, her little sister and her younger brothers. They repeat lyrics that describe the inhuman treatment young girls face after being sold as teenagers to much older men.
After the film ended at a Sundance screening, the filmmaker held a Q&A with the audience. One viewer asked, “Where is Sonita now?” Heads turned as Sonita rose from her seat in the crowd and came to the stage to answer questions wearing traditional Afghan dress.
“This film is about the power that music can have in this world as a force for good.”
Sonita, won the Sundance 2016 prize for Best World Documentary. Her story has now been shared on CNN, PRI, the Atlantic and the UK’s Daily Mail. The international exposure has certainly elevated her cause and dream to end the sale of child brides in Afghanistan.
A final interesting twist to this story is that her mother, who said that women singing is “shameful”, is now one of Sonita’s biggest fans. Her mother was sold into marriage when she was just 13 to a much older man. She now recognizes what her daughter has done could change the culture and the world for the better.
Sonita Alizadeh now lives in Utah and is a Junior at Wasatch Academy. While she says she loves Utah and says, “Wasatch Academy is the greatest school ever.” She told Utah Stories she would like to get a degree in music from a university in California.
Visit YouTube to see the video.