The first time Sonita Alizadeh wore a wedding dress, it wasn’t for the arranged marriage she thought awaited her in theocratic Iran. Instead, it was for a music video.
At 17, Alizadeh recorded “Daughters for Sale,” a rap song she wrote after learning her family intended to sell her into marriage for $9,000. The song—with lyrics like “I scream to make up for a woman’s lifetime of silence”—became an anthem in Afghanistan and elsewhere against the child-bride tradition. After the video garnered international attention, Alizadeh won a full scholarship to a boarding school in the U.S. Since then, Alizadeh, now 21, has emerged as one of her culture’s most powerful voices for women’s empowerment—not just through music, but through writing (she co-authored a curriculum on child marriage that has reached some 1.5 million high school students) and speaking (she has addressed events like the World Bank’s Fragility Forum).
But there was a time when Alizadeh feared that her voice would never be heard. Her family fled to Iran from their native Afghanistan when she was 6, and she grew up as an undocumented refugee and a child laborer. When she was 10, her family first considered selling her into marriage, but the wedding fell through. “I saw my friends being beaten because they said no to child marriage,” Alizadeh says. She started writing pop songs but found she had “too much to say,” so she switched to rap after listening to artists like Eminem. But in Iran, where it is illegal for women to sing or rap, she had to hide her lyrics in her backpack. Today, performing her most famous song, ‘Daughters For Sale’, can be a bittersweet experience: “It takes me back to when I was about to marry.”
Alizadeh’s dream is to become “a lawyer who can rap,” creating new legislation against forced marriage. Her mother was married at 13, and Alizadeh believes her generation needs to break with the tradition. The memories of her friends back in Iran still motivate her activism. “I want to help them achieve their dreams, to realize they have the power to be who they want to be,” she says.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the school Alizadeh won a full scholarship to attend. It was a college prep boarding school, not a music school.