Even with the end of Taliban rule – which imposed a highly rigid, patriarchal social code on the Afghan people – Afghanistan still ranks very poorly in terms of women’s rights. Women can be penalized for fleeing an abusive relationship, and they are widely denied access to education; attacks on girls’ schools are fairly common, and safe social activities are few, evidenced by the harsh treatment of the Afghan women’s cycling team (they are often pelted with rocks on the road).
Among the different forms of oppression facing girls and women in Afghanistan is the specter of forced marriage. Up to a third of Afghan girls are married by the age of 18, many of whom are compelled by familial arrangements.
One 16 year-old refugee, Sonita Alizadeh, nearly met such a fate. Her family escaped to Iran from Afghanistan during the Taliban’s reign. Living in destitution, Sonita taught herself English as she worked as a custodian for an NGO. She recounts:
For a long time I was a refugee. I had no papers or ID, I couldn’t go to school… life was very hard for me. I was looking for a way to share my feelings with others, and then I started to rap.
Taking cues from artists such as Eminem, she began to cultivate skills as a songwriter and rapper.
Her mother – who had return to Afghanistan when Sonita was 13 – came back to Iran three years later with earth-shafting news: the family intended to marry her off in order to raise funds for her brother’s $9,000 dowry. She relives the moment her family was discussing how much they could reasonably expect from her forced engagement:
I love my mother, I’m not mad at her. That moment i was thinking about society, about traditions, so I was sad because my mother couldn’t understand what was inside me. But also I could understand, because her family did not listen to her.
Using funds raised by a filmmaker to delay the wedding, Sonita was able to remain in Iran for a couple more months, during which several music producers helped her create “Brides for Sale.” Her song and the accompanying music video have since made waves around the world, gaining her fame and inspiring girls globally.
She was offered a scholarship that included a student visa to the United States, which she accepted without telling her mother. Currently, she lives in Utah, attending Wasatch Academy and acting as an advocate for girls facing forced marriage and other injustices. Watch the video for “Brides for Sale” below.