Sonita Alizadeh, a young and talented rapper and activist, went from an impoverished life as a teenaged Afghan refugee in Iran to rapping on the stages of summits for social change around the world. The documentary Sonita, now available on Netflix, tells her story.
Sonita lives with her sister and niece in a rented flat in Tehran, the Iranian capital. As Afghan refugees, life is difficult in Iran, especially without official papers: it’s nearly impossible to attend school, find stable housing and work, or access healthcare.
Sonita attends classes at a local NGO for vulnerable children, where she also works as a janitor to provide for the family. It is there that she sees one friend after another sacrifice their own aspirations for the sake of the family, as they are sold into marriage. As shown in one scene at the school, the girls seem to cope with this horrific situation through humor, joking with each other about their old, unappealing suitors. Sonita, though, deals with it by writing and rapping about her friends’ stories.
One day, those stories hit too close to home, when Sonita’s mother arrives from Afghanistan to push Sonita to come back with her to get married off, so that the family can get money to pay for her older brother’s marriage.
According to studies by the UNFPA, more than 50% of Afghan women were married before the age of 19, with 40% of them married between the ages of 10 and 13. The negative effects of child marriage on girls and society at large are well-documented: girls who are married off as children are more likely to live in poverty, suffer domestic violence, lack education, die in childbirth, and contract HIV and other STIs.
Sonita is determined not to end up like her friends and her own mother, who was also a victim of child marriage. She has a distant dream to become a recognized artist, but also the dogged determination to pursue it.
Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, the director of the documentary, ends up playing an involved role in Sonita’s life in a way that is unexpected for documentarians, who usually strive to maintain an objective distance. It is who Maghami helps Sonita put together a DIY music video for her rap, “Brides for Sale,” written from the point of view of a child sold into marriage, and post it online. The music video quickly goes viral. Soon, Sonita is winning competitions like the Afghan Election Anthem contest of 2014. Then, she wins the attention of Cori Stern of the Strongheart Group, an American NGO, who offers her a scholarship to attend Wasatch boarding academy in Utah to develop her talents. The camera follows Sonita as she jumps through every hoop it takes to get to Wasatch and follow her dreams.
The film is affecting and straightforward. The focus remains intimate, with all attention given to Sonita and her journey. Aside from what the participants say themselves about broader issues regarding the treatment of women and refugees, there is not a great deal of socio-political context offered. It would have added depth to the documentary to include a discussion of gender-based violence and anti-refugee discrimination on a larger scale in the region. Nevertheless, viewers get a vivid picture of the hardships faced by girls like Sonita as Maghami follows the contours of her daily life.
Given the cliffhanger ending, though, Sonita leaves the viewer wondering what happened to Sonita after she made it to the US. During her first year at Wasatch, she shared a series of diary entries with PRI’s The World, in which she talked about her favorite American foods, missing her family, and the cultural shock of witnessing so much economic and social privilege in the USA.
She writes about performing a rap on child labor for her classmates, drawing on her own experiences in Iran and pondering, “Students at Wasatch Academy do many presentations on things affecting the planet, such as pollution, recycling and dying oceans. As an Afghan refugee in Iran, my childhood was spent searching for a safe place. As a child laborer, I didn’t have time to explore or think about the world. Only time to work and learn ways to survive.”
Since the events of the documentary, her international profile has also skyrocketed. Sonita now serves as an advocate for the anti-child marriage organization Girls not Brides.
Sonita’s story is remarkable, and the woman herself is inspiring — and she’s actually one among several Afghan women using music to make a statement about politics and gender repression in Afghanistan, both from the country and in the diaspora.