SONITA – The fight against child marriage in Afghanistan

Child marriage has always been a known fact but until recently little was known what it was like on the inside and what the millions of women who are forced to marry as children actually think about it. They have little or no voice. In public, or in private. Sonita, through her songs about what it’s like for child brides in Islamic countries, has given us a window into this world and given those women a voice. However, we mustn’t take it for granted that a young Afghan girl in Iran could compose a song and get it published.

In Iran, women aren’t allowed to perform or sing as solo artists.  It’s a little known fact, and even though I’ve visited the country, I had no idea. It’s also against the law in Afghanistan too, but in this case the opposite would have surprised me.

Afghanistan isn’t a country that’s renowned for its respect for women’s rights, and Sonita is all too aware of this. Born in Afghanistan, Sonita Alizadeh is the subject of a documentary film named after her. Produced by the award-winning documentary maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, SONITA won the ‘Best international documentary’ price at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival as well as being featured at the Biografilm Festival in the “New Talents” section.

Despite only being 14 years old, Sonita has a very important story to tell. She’s one of the 4 million people who fled Afghanistan to find refuge in Iran after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The flow of migrants fleeing Afghanistan shows no sign of diminishing as the situation is the stability of the country is balanced on a knife edge after years of persecutions under the Taliban regime which was followed by the invasion by the US-led UN coalition in 2011, which never managed to normalize the country.

Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami met Sonita by chance in an NGO that brings aid to Afghan children living in Iran. Just like Sonita, many of them live on the streets and are illegal immigrants without any official status. Sonita was living in a small room with her sister and her two children, and managed to earn a living by working as a cleaner.

But Sonita isn’t resigned to her fate. She’s a dreamer, a visionary:

“What first struck me was how she managed to dream a world that was such a stark contrast to the terrible circumstances she was living in. Almost all children in her situation end up losing their imagination, but not her. Her desire for a different life was overwhelming” (Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami)

Sonita dreams of becoming a superstar, a rapper. Like every rapper worth their salt, her songs give voice to all of her anger.

Although it’s nearly impossible to become a female rapper in Iran, in Afghanistan it’s not even imaginable. Under the 13-year long rule of the Taliban, women weren’t allowed to go to school, leave the house unaccompanied or even appear in public without a burqa. Anybody who rebelled against these rules or innocently failed to follow them out of carelessness risked incurring brutal corporal punishments, even public stoning.

“I want to sing about what I feel in my heart, and spread my message everywhere.”

Sonita’s message is a one of protest, despair, and revolt. She wants her voice to create a rallying-point in the defense of all those Afghan women who had been forced into child marriage, their faces beaten black and blue, and their souls in pieces.

Sonita’s lot is no different to many young Afghan girls. Her mother tells her the news upon her arrival from Herat: It’s time to go home. There’s a potential husband for her who’s prepared to pay $9,000 for her. A good price and an attractive deal. Moreover, the family are in need for money …. to buy a wife for Sonita’s brother!

“How can you sell your own daughter?” (Ghaemmaghami)

“It’s traditional in our country and child marriage is one of our traditions. My marriage was also arranged. I wasn’t happy about it but this is our way of life.”

If you at the numbers then they back up the picture that Sonita’s mother paints – 9/10 Afghan women are victims of physical or psychological violence and are forced to marry. According to the United Nations, 15% of Afghan women are married off before they’re 15 years old despite the fact that the minimum age you can marry in the country is 16. On average, 60% of all child marriages are not consensual.

In the face of this personal tragedy, Sonita does the only thing that gives her any solace: she writes a rap song and goes to a studio in the hope of being able to record it. It’s too expensive and she doesn’t convince the studio’s producer: “you’re good” they tell her “but you’re not special yet”.  She’s also a girl, and you need a special permit from the government to record a female solo artists. How could Sonita be granted one if she doesn’t even exist in the eyes of the Iranian state?

This is another interesting facet of Sonita’s story. She arrived in Iran as a child with her family who were fleeing the Taliban.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the largest community of ethnic Hazara Afghan refugees, second only to Pakistan. According to tradition, the Hazara are the direct descends of the tribes led by Genghis Khan. They speak the same language as the Persian majority in Iran and both follow the Shi’ite interpretation of Islam. Due to these common ethnic bonds and the advent of theShi’ite theocracy in Iran under Khomeini it was natural therefore that the Hazara Afghanis viewed Iran as a safe haven from the persecution of the Afghan Taliban, whose Sunni Muslim fundamentalism is diametrically opposed to Shi’ism. For the Taliban, the ethnic Hazara are enemies to be eliminated, their women objects to be bought or even kidnapped.

However, the plight of these Afghan refugees in Iran is anything but straight forward. Only 950,000 (source: UNHCR) of the 3 million Afghans are legally resident in the country. The majority are all classed as illegal asylum seekers or simple nonpersons. Despite the fact that many are minors born in Iran, they have been excluded from the right to asylum after a crackdown against illegal immigrants from Afghanistan by the Iranian authorities in recent years. Since 2012, it’s a crime to provide help, food or protection to Afghan immigrants without papers.

As a result of the tightening of immigration legislation, thousands of Afghan immigrants become illegal literally overnight. They’re considered as outsiders, shunned by society, and are continuously being harassed by the police. By force of circumstance, they are relegated to the worst paid and hardest jobs. Without papers, they don’t have any access to healthcare either.

The Iranian government offers Afghans only one way out of their misery: enroll within the Revolutionary Guards and go and fight in the Syrian civil war. The overwhelming presence of Afghans in Syria isn’t a secret. They fill the rank and file of the Iranian forces in every theatre: Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and along the border with Israel. The all-afghan Fatemioun Brigade is the second largest unit of all of the forces fighting for Assad after Hezbollah.

To convince these Afghan men to fight, the Revolutionary Guards promise they’ll be granted legal residency and threaten them with expulsion if they refuse. Teheran denies any Afghans are being sent in any official capacity, but that they are volunteers who join up to defend Shia holy sites against the Islamic State (IS).

To return to Sonita’s story, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami becomes more and more involved in Sonita’s fight for freedom. The filmmaker agrees to pay Sonita’s mother $2,000 to delay her departure. However this is only a stay of execution as the mother can’t go back to Herat empty handed, but will surely return for more.

The turning point comes in 2014 when Sonia manages to make her breakthrough in the music business thanks to her music and songwriting. She’s transformed from a timid adolescent who dreams of becoming a rapper to political activist thanks to her video ‘Daughters for sale’, which goes viral. In the video Sonita wears a wedding dress against a black background, a barcode stamped on her bruised face, making the point that women are just like goods in a supermarket.

“Let me whisper to you my words. So no one hears me speak of selling daughters. My voice shouldn’t be heard, as it’s against sharia … “

Since the demise of the Taliban regime after US intervention in 2001, it’s true to say that there have been much progress in the field of women’s’ rights in Afghanistan. Education is more easily accessible and women have regained important political rights.  In the last parliamentary elections 69 women obtain seats, while the number of girls who attend school has grown from 500,000 to 3 million.

That said, there’s still a long way to go. Afghan society still continues to be strongly patriarchal and many practices and traditions that violate women’s human rights are still accepted in society and commonplace. According to Human Right Watch, 87% of Afghan women are victims of abuse during their lifetime.

Sonita’s courageous video has attracted the attention of the American NGO Strongheart Group, which has helped her obtain a permit to study in the United States. Today, Sonita studies music at the Wasatch Academy in the State of Utah, safe from the Taliban, the bombs, her father and mother, who would have had her married off, maybe to a Taliban.

Together with Strongheart, Sonita has launched the international campaign “Sonita’s Dream” to put child marriages in the public eye. She hopes to return to Afghanistan one day to lead the fight for women’s rights.

My country needs people like me.” (Sonita)

One couldn’t agree more. Especially if we consider that the United States are preparing to leave Afghanistan, most probably to the next lot of Talibans.

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