Rapping for Hope: Hip Hop and Arranged Marriages

Bobby Gulshan
Still from "Sonita," courtesy of Women Make Movies.
Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
Women Make Movies, 2015
“Sonita” tells the story of a young Afghani girl living in Tehran. From the outset of the film, Sonita is beset with the problems of an immigrant, having no status, insufficient identification and too little money. In the case of this young aspiring rapper, this may also include a dream too big for her world. 
In a scene early in the film, the teacher asks Sonita and the other immigrant Afghan girls who attend her class to make imaginary passports, which involves choosing their parents and place of origin. Sonita’s “passport” says her name is “Sonita Jackson,” and when asked by the teacher why she chose that, Sonita replies that she wants her imaginary parents to be Michael Jackson and Rihanna.
Sonita’s schoolmates tell stories of struggling with forces that seem greater than any of them. One girl, Arafeh, has a black eye given to her by her older brother. Another teenage student tells Sonita that she has been offered up by her father to marry an older man, but the father has not yet settled on the bride price. Sonita responds by turning the young girl’s story into a rap about wanting to pursue a different path, a path defined by independence, education and hip-hop.
The film features a running dialogue between the teen girls about marriage, and being coerced by their poor families to accept potential grooms and the money they offer. The girls speak almost casually about being beaten by family members. Sonita herself interrogates the girls going through the process of arranged marriages, as if to glean glimpses of what might happen in her future.
At the same time, the girl navigates Tehran with the help of a young construction worker called Ahmed. She helps him hone his rap skills, and together they venture out in search of someone willing to record a track for them. It’s an uphill battle. Some producers won’t risk recording someone who doesn’t have the proper credentials, others ask for more money than Sonita can afford, and others still reject her on artistic merit.
Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami does an extraordinary job. While she remains out of the story most of the time, she can be heard at times talking to Sonita when the two are alone. At one point, Sonita even grabs the camera and turns the lens on Maghami. The presence of the director adds to the feeling of intimacy, reinforcing the perception of Sonita as more than just a subject in front of the camera, locked in its anonymous gaze for the entire film. Instead, she remains in dialogue with it. This seems to allow Sonita to close the distance between herself, her inner life and the viewer.
A particularly tense moment in the film reveals the crux of the crisis that Sonita faces. Her mother has come to take her back to Afghanistan and sell her off so that her older brother can pay a dowry and get married himself. Sonita’s teacher – who seems more like what we in the West would know as a social worker – confronts the mother, not mincing words while trying to convince her not to sell her daughter’s future to some man. Sonita’s mother, on the other hand, digs in, insisting that it’s simply the Afghan way.
The film takes an interesting turn from that moment on, and the barrier between the subject and the filmmakers becomes increasingly thinner. Scenes of Sonita singing and rapping reveal a young woman who, despite her age, has dealt with enough life to fill her voice with authentic emotion and sincere pain. Her art becomes an act of resistance against a tradition that doesn’t value her potential as a human being. For Sonita – just as for young African Americans in late 70’s New York – hip-hop transmutes into an act of defiance against hopelessness itself. Near the end, the film features some of Sonita’s young siblings repeating a few of her rhymes. Hearing them, you cannot help but feel that her passion and talent has truly begun to make changes.
This film review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, no. 71 (2016).

© Copyright 2016, 2017 AL JADID MAGAZINE

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