Sonita Alizadeh got into rap music around the same time a lot of kids do. She was 14 or 15, in a karate studio in Iran when she was hooked by her first Eminem song. She couldn’t understand the words – she grew up speaking Dari in western Afghanistan before her family fled the war – but she liked the way it sounded. Something about the beat and the urgency in his voice resonated with her years before she ever saw the movie 8 Mile or recognized the similarities between her own story and the rapper in the film’s. “There was no giving up. Trying and trying. That’s what I’m all about,’ Sonita tells Rolling Stone through a translator. At the time, she only knew she wanted to sing songs like that.
She was living alone in Tehran, cleaning the karate studio in exchange for lessons. Her family – she’s the youngest of eight – had returned to Afghanistan where her mother was preparing for her brother’s wedding. Preparation included raising money to purchase the bride and, to do it, her family was considering selling Sonita into marriage first. She wrote the song “Brides for Sale” in protest. “Let me whisper, so no one hears that I speak of selling girls,” she rasps in a low voice at the start of the track. “My voice shouldn’t be heard since it’s against Sharia. Women must remain silent; this is our tradition.”
Sonita posted a stark music video to YouTube – made by Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami who was shooting a documentary about her life – and it went viral. “I received a great response from the world. I was able to connect with other girls experiencing the same issues,” she says. “It happens everywhere – every two seconds, one girl is married [off] under the age of 18.” The figure comes from the World Bank, and she knows it by heart because today, Sonita is a staunch advocate for ending child marriage. In between classes and exams and college applications – she lives in the U.S., where she is a senior in high school – she takes every opportunity to speak out about the issue.
She worries, though, that the work she’s already done and the work she plans to continue to do in the future won’t be enough. “My biggest fear is to see a world where girls continue to be treated as property, unable to imagine or create a bright future for themselves, and to see world leaders not take action to end gender-based violence around the world, [violence] that happens everywhere in the world.”
But Sonita has already made a difference for one person at least: her youngest sister, who her family isn’t pressuring into marriage they way they pressured their other three daughters. She thinks it might because of her advocacy work. “I think, maybe, those interviews and what I had to say affected the way my mom thinks. Now, she thinks that the only value a woman has is not just being a wife or a mom, it’s more than that. That’s why they’re not pressuring my sister that much now.”