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Esra’a Al-Shafei: Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

Esra’a Al-Shafei
Esra’a Al-Shafei. Source: World Economic Forum

“It is demotivating, disempowering, even depressing to live in a society that discourages dissent,” according to civil rights activist Esra’a Al-Shafei. Born and raised in Bahrain, Al-Shafei (1986) was disturbed by the rampant violations of migrant rights in her country. She held a firm belief that being silent was equivalent to being complicit, and wanted to create an initiative to document these abuses and advocate change.

This became possible in the early 2000s after the advent of the internet, which Al-Shafei soon realized would be the gateway to freedom of speech. Living in a society where state-sponsored media constantly propagates only one side of the story, the internet became a tool to challenge the status quo.

It was no easy feat. Al-Shafei had no knowledge or expertise of how to build a web-based platform. Undeterred, she spent countless hours researching websites and watching tutorials, teaching herself everything from using an open source website to buying a domain name. “I was part of every WordPress forum you can think of,” she told Fanack. Through patience and determination, Mideast Youth, an umbrella organization of all the initiatives that were to come, was born in 2006. Mideast Youth develops experimental tools and new applications to amplify diverse voices of dissent, specifically of marginalized communities and unrepresented minorities whose rights had been violated and voices silenced one time too many.

That was only the beginning. Also in 2006, Al-Shafei launched Bahai Rights, Migrant Rights and Kurdish Rights to expose the persecution and human rights abuses to which these minorities were being subjected. The user base grew exponentially, attracting diverse communities such as Arab Christians, Bahais from Iran, Kurds, Turkish activists and others who felt represented.

But it was not enough. Al-Shafei yearned to create a resource on which information on issues plaguing different regions of the Middle East could be crowdsourced and found in one place. It was difficult and time-consuming to procure evidence on human rights violations in a safe manner; information that was available but not necessarily accessible. She subsequently founded CrowdVoice in 2010, a website that categorizes events and issues from around the web but with a difference. It adds context, with a backstory and infographics that enable a deeper understanding of its root causes. While the website was initially intended for the Middle East, it began to be used in countries as far away as Russia, Indonesia, China and Mexico, serving a global need for activists and grassroots campaigners to be able to curate and contextualize information on various social justice movements.

This development led to an eye-opening experience for Al-Shafei. As she worked with volunteers who contributed from Mexico, she observed similarities between their causes and tactics and the ones in the Arab World. It generated a valuable exchange of information on dealing with issues the two teams, an ocean apart, faced and related to, from tactics on preventing the torture and murder of journalists and bloggers to tools on bypassing censorship.

The website archives evidence on issues long after they have stopped receiving coverage as current events in the media, which can be used to aid activists in bringing perpetrators to justice. Activists can also learn from successful campaigns in other countries and emulate strategies and tactics after localizing them to fit the political structure of their own countries.

“A lot of people are dying in vain and we have to make sure we remember them and these causes, and that we understand them and put them in the right context so when we do report them…we truly understand what makes them so urgent,” said Al-Shafei.

One of her favourite projects is the fun but equally impactful Mideast Tunes, which launched in 2010. A music lover, Al-Shafei first learnt about the Kurdish cause through Kurdish hip hop. She realized the wealth of talent and information that lay hidden in the underground music scene in the Arab world, which people did not have access to because it was impossible to showcase. But not for long. Mideast Tunes offers a platform to thousands of socially conscious musicians, who use their music as a form of activism to talk about gender identity, LGBT rights, women’s rights, racial justice, equality etc. She wanted to encourage Arabs to support bands within the region that talk about local struggles and that perform in every genre imaginable.

“It is important to make our identities visible, not just through poetry and literature. But in this day and age, [through] music. Because music really speaks to us and I think it is the most powerful weapon for advocacy…when it comes to challenging opinions…”

The usefulness and relevance of Mideast Youth’s initiatives is evident in the growing number of people using the platforms to express their thoughts and concerns, which they are otherwise often denied. The average unique monthly visitors across all Mideast Youth’s platforms are 400,000, and the Mideast Tunes mobile app has over 300,000 users.

Another of Al-Shafei’s initiatives is Making of a Century, an educational and interactive iPad and web app chronicling social leaders and revolutions that helped shape the century. An open call asked people to contribute information on lesser-known leaders who had left a mark on their country’s history, but had not made it into the textbooks.

Predictably, none of this comes without consequences, as Al-Shafei has to exercise extreme caution to maintain her safety. No pictures of her exist publicly anywhere on the internet, and she refuses to speak at events that do not comply with her need for security and anonymity. Many of her websites have been censored across the region, and CrowdVoice continues to be censored in her home country, Bahrain.

The journey can be bleak at times, but her team inspires her to keep looking ahead.

“When you know that there are other people sacrificing their lives and livelihoods, their comforts and security just so they can help you in this vision, you can’t let them down,” she said.

Committed to maximizing impact, Al-Shafei and her team’s future plans include working on a long-term business development strategy for Mideast Tunes, scaling CrowdVoice for global use, expanding Ahwaa, an LGBT platform, to include more features, growing campaigns on Migrant Rights and much more.

Al-Shafei’s extensive contributions to human rights through digital media won her the Berkman Award for Internet Innovation from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School in 2008, and the Monaco Media Prize in 2011. She was named one of Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’ social entrepreneurs changing the world in 2014, and one of ‘15 Women Changing the World’ by the World Economic Forum in 2015. She is a senior TED Global, Echoing Green and Shuttleworth fellow, and is on the board of AccessNow.

Al-Shafei envisions a society that celebrates diversity of people and ideas, and where “equality, freedom of religion and speech is the norm, instead of censorship, slavery and normalization of occupation. I think it’s time for us to stand up and say we are going to put everything on the line, including our lives, to ensure this is a society that we want to live in.”

Not wanting to limit its audience and user base to the Middle East when it has global relevance, Mideast Youth was rebranded as ‘Majal’ in 2016. A word with a unique linguistic heritage, majal is Arabic and Persian for ‘creating an opportunity’, Tagalog for ‘love’, and Hindi and Urdu for ‘having the audacity to do something’. Majal embraces all the characteristics on which Mideast Youth prided itself: universality, love for humanity, diversity and guts; an initiative paving the way for activists and musicians to express themselves while promoting social change.

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