Just 16 years after the end of the Taliban regime, which banned secular music unaccompanied by instruments, political rap is on the rise in Afghanistan. But for female rap artists in a country that was named by the Thomas Reuters Foundation as the worst place in the world to be born a woman, speaking out in favor of women’s rights through song is still a dangerous endeavor.
But while rapping remains a perilous craft for Afghan women, the new Netflix documentary Sonita shows that, for the country’s youngest female artist, rapping has also freed her from a traditional, restricted life as a child bride. At the beginning of Sonita, directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, Sonita Alizadeh appears as an Afghan refugee in Iran, dreaming of performing like Rihanna. Her reality is far less sunny: Alizadeh lives under the constant threat of being sent back to Afghanistan to marry an older man so her family can claim the dowry money.
That all changes when Alizadeh meets Ghaem Maghami, an Iranian documentary director whose previous films, Cyanosis and Going Up the Stairs, profiled two iconoclastic Iranian artists who have rubbed up against cultural tradition. Feeling sympathy toward the young girl, Ghaem Maghami pays off Alizadeh’s family in order to (quite literally) buy her some time to create a rap video, in hopes of getting discovered. Their plan works, and soon Alizadeh is attending a reputable arts academy in Colorado on a full scholarship. With this narrative, the film testifies to the opportunities that a global audience for Afghan rap addressing women’s rights provide for female rappers—while frankly depicting the occupational hazards it also entails for those who dare to speak out at home.
Maghami didn’t initially intend to make a film about Alizadeh—she met the 16-year-old as a favor to a cousin, who thought Ghaem Maghami could find her musical training. But in October, the director told the Guardian that she was convinced to film Alizadeh when she met a girl who wanted to rap because she said she had “a million things to say”—even though she was too shy to tell the director her name.
Alizadeh follows a line of recent Afghan women rappers, including Soosan Firooz and Paradise Sorouri, who have received death threats for addressing women’s and refugees’ rights, poverty, and child brides in their songs. Sorouri has also been beaten in the street since she began her rap career, as Pacific Standard’s William Hochberg reported in October.
Like Firooz and Sorouri, Alizadeh’s music directly addresses the experiences of Afghan girls at home and abroad. In the second scene of the film, Alizadeh performs a song, “Fortune Cards,” asserting that she will have a bright future despite what others tell her to a dancing group of fellow Afghan refugees and child laborers at the Tehran-Society. (Firooz, a former refugee herself, has also sung in favor of refugees’ rights.) Later, after she talks with a friend about her young friend’s impending marriage to an older man, she performs a few lyrics of her song “Brides for Sale” for her. “That’s exactly what I would like to say to my dad,” her friend says.
Singing in public is dangerous for Alizadeh in Iran, as it is in Afghanistan—solo performances by women in public have been banned in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But there, producers meet with her, and one group even agrees to help her and her friend Ahmad record a song. Thirty minutes into the film, however, when her brother decides to take a wife but can’t afford the dowry, her family expects her to return to Afghanistan to get married and provide them with the dowry money. Rapping there would effectively put Alizadeh in even more danger: While Kabul, a more culturally liberal city, is currently undergoing a cultural renaissance that is channeling more women into musical education, Alizadeh’s hometown of Herat remains deeply enmeshed in its conservative values. Just two years ago, attackers on motorcycles threw acid in the face of three girls as punishment “for going to school.”
Alizadeh hopes her music can help change the conservative tradition allowing families to sell children as brides to reap dowry rewards. "I believe, when my song is released, things will change just a little bit,” she tells her mother when she comes to Iran to bring her daughter back to Afghanistan to sell her. And her success in getting her music disseminated is due, in large part, to Ghaem Maghami’s intervention in her story, and the international organizations she puts her in touch with. In an unconventional move for a documentary filmmaker, Ghaem Maghami pays Alizadeh’s mother $2,000 to give her daughter six more months in Iran without marriage. With that extra time, Alizadeh films a music video for the song “Brides for Sale” that goes viral and wins Best Rapper and Best Female Rapper in an American musical contest aimed at encouraging Afghanis to vote. At the end of the film, Ghaem Maghami secures her a full scholarship at Wasatch Academy in Colarado with the help of the American non-profit the Strongheart Group.
Alizadeh’s not the only Afghani female rapper to leave the country and keep encouraging her Afghani audience from afar—Sorouri emigrated to Germany, where she tours and starred in her own documentary, Rebel Beats, released in 2016. Meanwhile, those who stay behind in Afghanistan have taken extra security measures in order to perform: Soosan Firooz, who remains in Afghanistan, has taken her father as a bodyguard; Ramika Khabiri wears a mask in public. Even as the number of well-known names grows, female rappers can only be outspoken in Afghanistan to a point. As Sonita’s credit-roll sequence, which depicts Alizadeh performing “Brides for Sale” in Dari in California to a predominantly white audience without subtitles, demonstrates, Alizadeh still speaks primarily to her female peers in Afghanistan—even if, to make and perform her music, she’s living over 7,000 miles away.