Alizadeh has become one of the most powerful voices against child marriage in the world and is challenging the status quo with her compelling lyrics.
Although it was illegal for a girl to rap alone, and dangerous to speak out, I could not remain silent. At age 14, I wrote my first rap, about child labor.” Sonita Alizadeh was only 10 years old when her family first considered marrying her off in exchange of money so that her brother could pay for his bride.
Rapping came as a refuge for this Afghan refugee growing up in Iran, to express her pain and anger against a practice that rips off young girls from an independent future, surrenders them to physical and psychological abuse, and subjugates the status of women to mere commodities. Today, Alizadeh has become one of the most powerful voices against child marriage in the world and is challenging the status quo with her compelling lyrics.
Alizadeh’s personal and cultural experiences as a female have strongly impacted her work as an activist and rapper. She was born in Afghanistan but her family moved to Iran in order to escape the Taliban rule. Without legal documents or ID cards, Alizadeh was forced to stay out of school. At a local not-for-profit, she would clean up bathrooms for Afghan refugees in exchange for basic writing and reading classes that were held for refugee girls. “As I witnessed injustices of the world around me, I found poetry, photography and music to be an outlet for self expression,” Alizadeh says.
Her family tried to sell her as a child bride twice, and although the proposal didn’t go through, it did leave Alizadeh traumatized. She was well aware of the physical and psychological torture that child brides experience in a marriage and the constant fear of being sold motivated her further to write and challenge authoritative institutions such as patriarchy. “I began experimenting with pop music, but found the slow pace to be too confining for all I had to say. After hearing an Iranian rapper on the radio, I decided to give rap a try. The faster beat and narrative nature of rap created enough space for me to share all that was on my mind,” she explains. Inspired by rappers such as Eminem, Drake and Rihanna, she soon started penning down her thoughts and emotions.
With the help of Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami – who was also making a documentary about Alizadeh’s life – she released her debut song, ‘Brides for Sale’, where she reflects on how her exposure to cultural practices impacted her. The video instantly grabbed global attention. In the stark music video, the activist dons a white bridal dress, smears marks of violence on her face, wears a barcode on her forehead, and in between stares blankly into the camera. She uses barcode as a symbol to signify the status of her gender equivalent to a commodity, and bruises to highlight the dominant practice of violence that young brides face in a marriage. “Many people didn’t know about child marriage before they heard my music or heard me speak. Awareness and education is critical to changing laws, changing perceptions, and changing lives. Child marriage happens everywhere. Many people who live with the reality of child marriage have told me that they are inspired to help make changes in their communities because of my music and because of being inspired by my advocacy work.”
Alizadeh intersects various institutions within her lyrics such as religion, patriarchy, family, community and lawand exposes their dominance and control over young girls’ lives. She uses rap to break the discourse and assert social change. A few weeks after the release of the video on YouTube, Alizadeh was offered a scholarship to attend Wasatch Academy in Utah, United States.
Alizadeh’s advocacy against child marriage extends beyond Iran and Afghanistan. She has created a curriculum about child marriage with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and the Strongheart Group that is helping teach high school students around the world about child marriage and is engaging them as activists. She concludes by giving a message to the readers, “I want you to know that you can hold a vision for yourself, believe in yourself and be strong. Change can be overwhelming and scary, especially if you are trying to change your own life, or an old tradition like child marriage. Begin simply. Imagine something different. Then, believe it is possible. Next, take small steps toward that goal. It does not matter how small our actions are, they add up and they make us stronger.”
As a woman leader of tomorrow, Winona exemplifies the spirit of community building through participation and engagement. With more than 9,000 hours in volunteer work, she has made an impact on thousands of lives through projects and various fundraising campaigns.