In 2015, Afghanistan’s religious scholars interpreted that for a marriage to exist under Shariah law, both parties need to exhibit ‘adulthood’ and ‘sanity’. The definition of adulthood is ambiguous. Some say a girl is said to attain adulthood after menstruation, while others arbitrarily set an age at around eight or nine-years-old.
Regardless of the interpretation of adulthood, if a girl is deemed to be a minor, most ‘scholars’ in the region agree that the father or male guardian has the legal and religious right to get her married.
Despite the Universal Declaration of Human rights requiring ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage, more than half of Afghanistan’s girls are either engaged or married by the time they reach the age of 12. Around 60 per cent of girls are married off by the time they hit their 16th birthday, with most of them being sold off to suitors four times their age.
Sonita Alizadeh was supposed to be one of those girls.
Set to be married off to the highest bidder at barely 14 years of age, Sonita’s father claims that the money was necessary in order to organise a wedding for his son. A documentary by renowned Iranian film maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami called ‘Sonita is a Travelling Swallow’ follows Sonita’s story and is soon due for release. During a few early shots, you see Sonita’s mother ask a friend,
“I told Sonita’s suitors to pay $7,000 for her. Is this good?”
To which the friend’s response was,
“$6,000 is more of a reasonable price for … girls like her.”
Girls like her.
Girls like Sonita, who at just 15, filmed a rap song titled Brides for Sales that could probably land her in jail, if not, dead. Wearing a barcode on her forehead and bruises on her face, she raps,
“Let me whisper to you my words, so no one hears that I speak of the selling of girls. My voice shouldn’t be heard, as it is against Shariah. Women must remain silent. This is this city’s tradition.”
Girls like her.
Girls that fight against social structures, which were created to silence them. Girls that, despite being prevented from receiving an education, can write and rhyme with depths of spoken words that most of the nation would not be able to comprehend.
In what must have been a heart-breaking documentary to create, Ghaemmaghami cuts to a shot of Sonita pleading to the camera,
“Why don’t you buy me? In Afghanistan, a man can pay US dollars and buy me. What if you can pay, then I’d be free to make music. My music will sell and I will pay you back!”
After posting her songs online, the instantaneous success the social media offered, worked in Sonita’s favour. Within a few hundred shares of her song, her talent was stumbled upon by the headmaster of Wasatch’s school of Music, where she was then offered a scholarship to study.
Sonita’s international support, scholarship and success changed her parents’ perception about her worth. After listening to her rap songs and understanding the scenario, they agreed to cancel any plans for Sonita’s sale.
Arguably, it may be the pressure of international attention that caused the change in their once, very cemented, mind-set. Arguably, it may also be the genuine realisation of how determination, passion and support in the digital era can orchestrate a new direction in one’s life – one that is not bound by your citizenship. One that is not bound by your gender.
We can only infer, or assume, what led to Sonita’s parents’ decision. However, what we can confidently celebrate is the empowerment of a girl who fought for a revaluation of her voice, a girl who was determined to change the plight of other child brides like herself. Since then, Sonita has won numerous prizes for her work, including a ‘best female’ prize in the Argus Productions’ election anthem song contest, where she rapped about the importance of Afghans’ voting in the upcoming elections.
Advocating for the end of child marriage, Sonita is determined to raise awareness about Afghanistan’s girls for sale.