Bard student known internationally for activism, rap

Sonita Alizada’s eyes are bruised, her cheeks scratched dripping blood. 

Stamped in the middle of her forehead is a barcode, just below a sparking tiara with a white veil attached. 

Wearing a wedding dress and holding a bouquet of flowers, she raps. 

“I scream to make up for a woman’s lifetime of silence, I scream on behalf of the deep wounds on my body,” each word chasing after the next with desperate energy, translated from her native tongue. “I scream for a body exhausted in its cage, a body that broke under the price tags you put on it.” 

“Brides For Sale” was the music video that put Sonita Alizada in the global spotlight. More than a musical artist, she gained acclaim as a human rights activist, even as she had yet to leave her teenage years or the Iranian camp in which she found refuge.

Khadija Ghanizada learned about Sonita Alizada as a teen herself, while attending boarding school in Afghanistan during a unit on women’s rights, long before she made the move to America and enrolled at Bard College.

It would be weeks after they met in fall 2019 before Khadija learned the friend she made while on her way to the dining hall named Sonita — the fellow freshman from Afghanistan with whom she struck an immediate rapport — and international activist Sonita Alizada, were one and the same.

As a student at Bard, Sonita is “so happy and bubbly and always makes me laugh,” Khadija said, which is why tears come to her eyes while watching the “Brides For Sale” video.

“Seeing that side to her was unexpected,” Khadija said. “It hit me like ‘Wow,’ you never know what people are going through and what they have been through.”  

Sonita came to the U.S. from Iran when she was 18 years old.

She was born in Herat, Afghanistan under the Taliban regime before her family made the harrowing journey through the elements to a refugee camp in Tehran. There, her family attempted to sell her as a child bride twice. After the second attempt, she fled to the United States.

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In the six years since, she’s received several accolades, the latest being the 2021 Freedom Peace Prize in early June, in honor of her advocacy to end forced child marriage. The three-year-old international award has been given previously to only Greta Thunberg and Loujain Al Hathloul.

She’s been the subject of a documentary about her life in Afghanistan titled “Sonita.” She works with organizations like Girls Not Brides, The Global Partnership for Education, and The Global Women’s Empowerment Network. She’s addressed the United Nations.

She also founded an organization called Arezo, in which money is raised to provide basic needs for two impoverished children in Herat each month.

Meanwhile, in her first two years on campus in Annandale-On-Hudson, her work has proven infectious for her group of friends, who have been inspired to join her. 

Getting a scholarship to Bard allowed Sonita to pursue a degree in Human Rights.

“My hope is that my advocacy work will make a difference,” she told the Journal in an email interview. “Specifically, the end of child marriage.

“I hope for a future where girls have equal access to education and the ability to reach their full potential,” she added. 

But, on campus, she’s just another student balancing a social life against her activism and various jobs, like working on the Bard Farm and staying up all night as a dispatcher for the campus driving service. 

When asked what her experience has been like at Bard she describes it in one word. Amazing. 

“Bard is an incredibly supportive community,” she said. “The faculty and staff don’t just work at the college, they are available all the time and will help you with anything.” 

Defying expectations

In her dorm, Sonita hugs Khadija as her friend recalls memories from her own traumatic past. 

When Khadija was younger, she saved her sister from becoming the victim of a child marriage. It was something Khadija never told anyone; a secret she struggled to admit even to herself. 

“I was always pushing it away, the fact that my family would actually do something like this,” Khadija said. “My family is a progressive one that let their daughter ride a bike and get an education, so I never opened up to anyone about that… I told (Sonita) the whole story.” 

Sonita understood her friend’s pain and fears. Her family attempted to sell her twice into child marriage contracts to raise a dowry for her brother. The first contract fell through when she was 10 years old. The second took place when she was 16, but that time she ran away. 

“I was too young to understand what marriage meant,” Sonita said of herself at age 10. “I thought it was a game where you dressed up in nice clothes.”

When asked what gave her the courage to run, she said, “I saw a better, different future for myself. 

“I had a dream and hope,” she added. 

During her time as an undocumented refugee in Iran, Sonita began making music. 

“I was breaking the law in Iran at the time, and still now women aren’t allowed to sing or rap solo,” she said in an interview published by Bard. “Honestly, back then, I knew the law, but I felt like my dreams were bigger than the fears I had from the police.” 

Her music caught the eye of filmmaker Roksareh Ghaem Maghami, who helped Sonita make a music video and release “Brides For Sale.” Its jarring imagery and impassioned plea caught the attention of international critics and publications ranging from “Rolling Stone” to the “New York Times.”

She was given a scholarship to a boarding school in Utah and the filmmaker helped her make the move to America.

Sonita broke the mold in every aspect of her journey, which is the same advice she gave to Khadija when she learned about her friend’s painful past. 

“It was hard for me to keep this inside for so long, but seeing her turn her story into something so incredible… to make the story of her pain into something so strong… I was like, ‘Oh this is something incredible,” Khadija said. “She listened to me and she told me to defy expectations. If they expect me to be one thing, I should be completely the other thing.” 

A student and a human rights leader 

This past school year, amid COVID-induced isolation, Katie Esposito was feeling homesick.

Her friend Sonita threw her a surprise birthday party.

The simple gesture meant the world to Katie, especially coming from a person whose free time is sparse. 

Like Khadija, Katie knew Sonita for weeks before she learned she had befriended an international figure.

“It’s really amazing how she just uses her story to uplift and inspire others and bring about change, and this change is so necessary and crucial for women’s rights across the world,” Katie said. “She is just always wanting to do more to help others and help with worldly issues. Just being her friend, I know that her talent and her true genuine concern for others is just going to help her get further in her career.”

Sonita’s drive and motivation not only has propelled her forward, but her friends say that it has inspired them to get involved in more activism of their own. 

Khadija said had never thought of herself as an activist, but Sonita explained that by standing up for her sister and speaking her mind, she’s been filling that role all along. 

She said Sonita not only organizes campus events for her organizations, but helps her friends with their causes.

Katie and Khadija have both become a part of Sonita’s Arezo. For Khadija, it’s not only a way to help her friend but its fulfilling a dream of her own.

“Since I was a kid, we would see the kids on the street the same age as me that didn’t have the things I had,” Khadija said. “It always bothered me and tormented me most of my life, and I always searched for how I can help.” 

The organization chooses two impoverished children from Herat each month to provide supplies and a stipend to. Sonita said the organization affords her the opportunity to give back to children experiencing the poverty she went through as a homeless refugee in Tehran. 

Sonita says her dream is to end child marriage and her aim is to help children succeed. In a speech at the United Nations, she spoke about how to achieve that goal. 

“We need to support girls to see there are other possibilities for themselves and that they can believe in themselves,” she said. “I know that this can be done, because I was one of them and I am here in front of you.” 

Katelyn Cordero is the education reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal:; Twitter: @KatelynCordero.