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NRS-Import

Afghan youngsters use hip hop to speak for women's rights

A widely praised documentary about about a teenage rapper escaping forced marriage and the success of a Berlin-based band chronicle the rise of rap music as a tool in the battle for women's rights in Afghanistan.

Sonita Alizadeh was just like any other teenager in Afghanistan. Growing up in a country in which girls are up for sale as brides meant her fate would not be any different. But she had other plans. Her dream was becoming a hip hop artist, and she was not going to let it go.

Iranian film director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami found Sonita in an Iranian school after she and her family fled the Taliban. Hearing the girl's story and her musical talents, Ghaemmaghami decided to film a documentary about her story, even stepping in when the girl's family planned to sell her as a bride: she paid Sonita's family 2,000 dollars (€1,833) for them not to force the youngster into marriage.

These experiences resulted in the film "Sonita," which has been screened at the Sundance film festival, receiving many plaudits. In the movie, Sonita speaks up against many practices limiting women's rights in her country, including forced marriage and limited education for girls, and her weapon of choice is hip hop music.

This is not the first time an Afghan woman has used hip hop as a mean of protest. Paradise, a 26-year-old woman from Afghanistan, is one half of Berlin-based duo 143Band. Along with her male partner, Diverse, also an Afghan hip hop artist, she too sings about issues that matter to Afghan women.

In an interview with DW, Paradise says this phenomenon of Afghan women using the power of hip hop to drive change is no surprise to her. The self-proclaimed "first female Afghan rapper" says that given the many problems in her country, especially when it comes to women's rights, "hip hop is easily chosen as the right music style" to let the world know. She mentions the fact that it is an unlimited, easy-to-understand style that can bear a message.

An effective voice

The story of Sonita's hip hop career, and the documentary named after her, drew international attention to the emerging Afghan hip hop scene. A video of her song "Brides for Sale" with English subtitles hashad more than 340,000 views on YouTube at the time of writing. It starts with Sonita whispering into the microphone, "so that no one hears I'm speaking about the sale of girls."

Paradise says that with Sonita's uncensored style she has the ability to make real change. "Although she's had bad experiences in her life, she didn't give up, and tried to be the voice of the voiceless Afghan women," Paradise says, adding that Sonita's voice is "effective due to her personal life experiences." Sonita is also active on social media, and uses her Twitter account to promote women's rights in Afghanistan as well as her music.

Falling on deaf ears?

Music, specifically hip hop, has been used to spur on social change in many cases in the past, but in order for the music to have the desired impact, it needs to have a crowd of followers. Paradise argues that while the genre is been new to Afghanistan, artists do not let that fact hold them back while saying what's on their mind. "Hip hop is like a new born baby, but this baby has a lot to say... But when this baby will grow up then positive change can definitely happen in social life among Afghans."

While this baby has not had an easy time since its birth, there are certainly some positives. Afghan hip hop is still growing strong, and Paradise says the change is already being felt. She tells the story of a family, in which the father tried at first to prevent his daughter from going to university. Then, she says, the man watched 143Band's first Afghan female rap video, "Faryade Zan." Seeing her rapping, Paradise proudly says, the man told his daughter that if a girl can rap, then there is no reason to stop her from going to university. Paradise says this sort of changes "encourages us to continue what we are doing."