Esra’a Al-Shafei has lived in Bahrain her whole life. She is a civil rights activist, blogger, and founder of the organization Majal, formerly known as Mideast Youth. I am grateful to know about her organization and its many inspiring projects, which include CrowdVoice.org, a platform that tracks voices of protest from around the world and compiles videos, photos and reports on social justice movements; Ahwaa.org, a bilingual platform that allows LGBT youth in the Arab world to connect; and Migrant-Rights.org, an online publication dedicated to advancing the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East.
Al-Shafei, who is 29, believes in the power of music to promote social change, and is also the founder of Mideast Tunes, a website that aggregates underground music by Middle Eastern artists. “Its mission is to unite people across social, political and religious barriers by creating constructive discourse through music," she says. “This project has reinforced the value of music as more than just a creative outlet, but as a social tool that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities, especially youth, in a way that transforms the entire narrative around the Middle East and North Africa. Many of our artists are women who perform across a wide variety of genres, or artists from minority communities who face multiple barriers in their search for expression.”
“Mideast Tunes and the creative artists that are part of its community not only transform the Western narrative around the region, but they also transform local communities in the Middle East and North Africa that are struggling against violence on a daily basis," Al-Shafei adds. “The rise of groups such as ISIS/Daesh, and the recurring violence from occupation, sectarianism, and dictatorship threaten to destroy the vibrancy and creativity of the region, but music, especially music from underground, often marginalized voices, is one tool to combat the effects of those violent forces."
During our wide-ranging Skype conversation in January, Al-Shafei spoke at length about the risks of taking government money to work on her projects, specifically from the U.S. "We steer clear of the U.S State Department and its projects because of the grave political implications in money associated with the U.S government," she said. “There are elements of this kind of influence that must be exposed and corrected. It’s insane to fund a brutal regime and claim to support human rights advocates, or occupy a country for over a decade but still want to support its civil society sector. Not only is it deeply hypocritical but it’s incredibly damaging to our causes here to have such forces interfere with our activities. I do believe that State-funded initiatives are often just a scheme to get as much data as possible about the players involved. This is further supported by the fact that the U.S and our governments share a lot of intelligence that often put the lives of activists in immediate risk.”
We also discussed the ways the internet has changed since she first began using the web as a site for activism over a decade ago, the political and cultural realities of life in Bahrain, and her favorite Middle Eastern artists.
To get a sense of the political and cultural realities of Bahrain, can you speak about your childhood? How did growing up in Bahrain impact you?
I’ve spent all my childhood and adult life in Bahrain, I’ve grown really attached to it. It’s a very small country. We’re sandwiched between two giants of the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran. So it goes without saying that we grew up amongst a lot of instability. We have our social movements that have been brewing in Bahrain ever since the country declared its independence from British occupation. It’s always been interesting to be here, because our social and political environments are constantly changing and being challenged. We’ve never gone through a year with no political turmoil. Throughout my childhood I became particularly drawn to the plight of migrant workers in the country, and that’s largely what drew me to do the work that I do.
What inspired you to start your organization Majal, formerly known as Mideast Youth?
It stopped being tolerable to simply envision the ideal, just society. It became quickly apparent that each of us has a huge role and responsibility to do everything in our power to contribute to such a vision. It was a traumatic experience feeling so powerless in the midst of so many injustices, but when I started using the internet in my early teens I realized just how powerful it is in not just serving as a gateway to freedom of expression, but also as a way for us to document and amplify diverse voices of dissent and hold leaders and corporations accountable for their heinous crimes in the region and beyond. My first project was a satirical website, which I ran with some friends for about two years. I realized though that it wasn’t doing the causes I care about any justice, so I turned to the creation of Mideast Youth, which became a forum to amplify marginalized voices throughout the region, with a focus on ethnic and religious communities who continue to face persecution. That quickly developed into various campaigns that span off into their own projects.
The internet was a really different place a decade ago. It felt a lot smaller, and the impact wasn’t nearly as big as it is today. It wasn’t as censored or surveilled. I felt a lot safer. Nowadays, every critical post or tweet comes with a major consequence. Entire laws and policies have changed or been introduced to take into account our online presence and activities. Although we reach people a lot faster, the risks are also much graver, so I practice a lot of self-censorship that I never worried about in my earlier years online.
Can you elaborate on how you have watched the internet change since you first started using it as a place for activism 10 years ago? Do you still believe in the political potential of the internet? What are currently the biggest challenges you face as someone who largely organizes on the internet in the Middle East?
The internet today is a lot more cleaned up. I used to have most of my political discussions / inspirations from conversations on ICQ and Yahoo group chats. I also eagerly searched for queer rooms out of confusion about my identity but never quite found the right fit. Everything just seemed like a giant message board. A lot of the political sites I followed were powered by Geocities and flash ads were everywhere, and it was very difficult to be engaged with the content, so everyone seemed so one dimensional. The web wasn’t actively getting censored yet, so all kinds of content was readily available and everything just felt safer. But it was a lot more difficult to gain any visibility, to find a local target audience, to do anything with multimedia. It really wasn’t an ideal space to engage in any advocacy with actual impact. That kept changing for the better with each year. But what got harder was surveillance and ongoing censorship. It’s so easy now to get arrested over content shared (not necessarily even written or created) on the web, the simple act of sharing a controversial article is enough in many regional countries to land you behind bars. It’s ridiculous and keeps getting more outrageous, and you end up practicing a lot of self-censorship to protect yourself and your colleagues if you’re still based here.
A lot of the work that you do as a human rights activist and organizer is done at great risk to you personally - can you speak to the ways in which standing up against censorship, and elevating voices of dissent, is a great risk in Bahrain?
It’s a risk everywhere in the region, now more than ever, and as allied governments often share data with each other (especially in the GCC countries), it’s very easy to be targeted for not just what you say about your country but all the neighboring ones too. You just have to find ways to protect yourself and your identity. That means not being overly public with a lot of your criticisms and activities, unfortunately, but there are different ways to approach these challenges. The risks are worth taking. The causes we’re a part of are always a lot bigger than our individual selves and everything is just a process to reach our goals.
Was there any specific moment or experience that shaped you into wanting to fight for progressive thinking?
Factions of Bahrain have always been progressive - not necessarily in their thinking but in their willingness to discuss differences. Since a young age I was surrounded by people who publicly identified as atheists, hardcore feminists, queers, converts of other faiths, and much more. They’re not communities you often see represented in the local media but they’re around you. Being a part of such a society and meeting such people throughout my life definitely had an influence in shaping my work today, and it inspires me to do my part in ensuring that we can each express our thoughts or criticisms without fear of any repercussions. That’s when I felt the urge to create the organization. We wanted to amplify these underrepresented voices through various means, by mostly focusing on the minorities whose mere existence was being punished (Baha’is, Kurds, the LGBT community, migrant workers, amongst others.)
Looking through the Majal site and all of the related projects, I’m curious - how did you learn how to do all of this stuff? And how do you see the projects being connected?
Everything we do has been self-taught. Our site in the very beginning looked like a virus. Gradually I started to learn how to build plugins to make our sites more interactive, unique and engaging. It was pretty difficult, but you get the hang of it really fast. We soon wanted to do more than just build content-based sites. We saw that we were lacking entire tools, so we turned our attention to building platforms that helped us and other grassroots organizations build or accelerate their movements more effectively. We never shied away from creating and trying new things, some projects failed despite years of hard work and some of them remain very successful to this day. Some people tell us that for an organization to have impact, it must focus on just one thing and do that one thing really well. I disagree with that completely. Sometimes it’s far more effective to multiply your efforts across a variety of platforms that operate very differently, but that serve the exact same purpose. It helps you reach a wider audience much quicker. For example we used our project Mideast Tunes, which is now the largest platform for underground musicians in the MENA region who use music as a tool for social change, to attract supporters for our Kurdish rights campaigns. All of our projects compliment each other in one way or the other, and help us sustain longterm momentum.
Gradually these projects started picking up international recognition, media like the New York Times or the Washington Post started relying on our original research on migrant workers or the Kurdish community. CrowdVoice though was the project that really inspired us to transition into an international organization. CrowdVoice is an open source tool that curates and contextualizes social justice movements around the world. We launched it at first in 2009 for internal usage within the team, but then we felt it might be of use to launch it more publicly, which was a well-timed decision, as we did that just 6 months before the protests erupted across the region in 2011. Eventually though the platform was being adopted in places we didn’t anticipate to have a presence, such as Mexico, India, Russia and many more. With this reach, we grew our team to also be represented in these places. That’s why we felt it was crucial for us to have a name for the organization that truly incorporates all our projects and teams. We chose “Majal" because we wanted an Arabic word that helped us stick to our roots as a Middle Eastern entity. Majal is the Arabic and Persian word for creating a way, an opportunity. In Hindi it means to be brave or daring. In Tagalog “Mahal" means love. It felt like the perfect word to represent us and everything we stand for.
One of the projects I am most excited about under this umbrella is Mideast Tunes, which I spoke about briefly earlier. Its mission is to unite people across social, political and religious barriers by creating constructive discourse through music. This project has reinforced the value of music as more than just a creative outlet, but as a social tool that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities, especially youth, in a way that transforms the entire narrative around the Middle East and North Africa. Many of our artists are women who perform across a wide variety of genres, or artists from minority communities who face multiple barriers in their search for expression.
Mideast Tunes started as a side project but it grew incredibly fast. Its first four years were entirely self-funded, with some support from artists themselves, until we got a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture to continue our expansion. With their support we were able to accommodate more users in places like Syria, Palestine and Iraq with features like offline listening since much of our core audience didn’t have a readily available Wi-Fi or 3G/4G connection.
This project helped us connect our projects together more efficiently. We saw the ways that people were reacting to the Kurdish rights issues, to the plight of migrant workers in the region, to other minorities being abused. They weren’t really paying attention. It was really difficult to get people’s attention to increase awareness. But with music, it was a different story. When a musician goes to the stage and talks about migrants’ rights, talks about kurdish rights, talks about minorities, it really moves you. We started seeing this incredible amount of influence that musicians were having, much more than bloggers, and far more than journalists. They were really engaged. And they were targeting a very specific and very powerful community which is young people, and young adults.
The site blew up with its popularity towards the end of 2014, and many people were under the assumption that it was a venture capital funded platform because of the attention we put on the functionality and user interface design, especially across our Android and iOS apps. You visit the site, you download the application - it looks and functions flawlessly. Offline listening, random listening, you can filter by country, by genre, favorite artist, creating your own playlist, listen with your friends. We place such a big emphasis on this because when we build these tools, we want to honor the individuals and the communities that we serve by making sure they look absolutely stellar - and they function well, they look well, they tell the story as powerfully as possible. Because that’s when people listen. How many times do you write a blog on a Tumblr and tweet it out, and even if it was so important, the likelihood of it going viral is very slim. You would have already had to have an existing network for something like that to actually get spread around. We didn’t have access to any of that. We didn’t have a network, we didn’t have anything. All we had were skills we needed to learn to make sure people were paying attention to what we were saying. And they will do that if you are innovative in your thinking and in your approach.
Visibility is so competitive in the age of Buzzfeed and all these distractions, and people for the most part, unless they are fully invested in a particular cause, don’t pay attention. We really have to run an extra mile to ensure that people are listening, and that’s one of the main goals at Majal: is that we have to create unique, productive, user-friendly services and tools and applications that help us reach our core audience. But at the heart of what we do, we don’t consider ourselves to be a traditional NGO, or a traditional human rights organization that just does clicktivist advocacy and emails you a petition to sign. That’s not what we do. We’ve always wanted to play a much bigger role than that.
Another project of ours worth mentioning which is also dear to me is Ahwaa, which is the Arabic word for passions. It’s a platform for the LGBT community in the Arab world that provides a fun and easy way to share stories, request advice, and seek solidarity.
In regards to what you were saying about building from the ground up - can you speak to your decision to not take government money?
Specifically, we steer clear of the U.S State Department and its projects because of the grave political implications in money associated with the U.S government. There are elements of this kind of influence that must be exposed and corrected. It’s insane to fund a brutal regime and claim to support human rights advocates, or occupy a country for over a decade but still want to support its civil society sector. Not only is it deeply hypocritical but it’s incredibly damaging to our causes here to have such forces interfere with our activities. I do believe that State-funded initiatives are often just a scheme to get as much data as possible about the players involved. This is further supported by the fact that the U.S and our governments share a lot of intelligence that often put the lives of activists in immediate risk.
Having said that, we don’t work with any other governments, but for the sake of transparency it’s worth noting that we did accept the Human Rights Tulip, a very prestigious European prize given by the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
Can you speak more about the political potential of music from the Middle East being shared abroad, in the U.S.?
It is really important. Mideast Tunes and the creative artists that are part of its community not only transform the Western narrative around the region, but they also transform local communities in the Middle East and North Africa that are struggling against violence on a daily basis. The rise of groups such as ISIS/Daesh, and the recurring violence from occupation, sectarianism, and dictatorship threaten to destroy the vibrancy and creativity of the region, but music, especially music from underground, often marginalized voices, is one tool to combat the effects of those violent forces. Mainstream U.S. assumptions about the Middle East paint it as uni-dimensional and intolerant, a region where minorities live in fear of the Muslim majority. Mideast Tunes features many Christian and Baha'i artists, in addition to Muslim artists that aren't Arab. These musicians co-exist on the site, but their communities also co-exist in the Middle East. To the U.S. based listener with a limited understanding of the Middle East, the shared roots of each artists' heritage becomes clear in a way difficult to convey through any newspaper article. The cultural influence of these countries is often underestimated and ignored, despite how much artists from these countries have to offer.
Who are some artists in the Middle East advocating for social change that our readers should look up?
Iranian artist Hichkas, Syrian group Refugees of Rap, Kurdish folk artist Aynur, Palestinian electro band Checkpoint 303, Egyptian rapper Myam Mahmood.
I wanted to ask you about the role that gender and identity play in music in Bahrain, or the Middle East more generally. Has there been a feminist music movement in Bahrain or in the Middle East more generally? What challenges do female artists face in Bahrain?
There’s definitely a growing female presence in the indie music scene both in Bahrain and throughout the region. The barrier to entry is lower than what it used to be and it’s a lot easier to find the right bands and artists to collaborate with, but at least 52% of the artists on Mideast Tunes are female, or consist of female-fronted bands. That may be a shock to some people but it’s completely expected because women have always been at the forefront of social movements in the region, so it goes without saying that this would be reciprocated through music. They face a lot less challenges today because of how prevalent it is, but of course it differs from one society to another, and the individual challenges also depend on the person’s background. Some families welcome and encourage it, others are vehemently against it and some artists have stopped performing as a result of that backlash. Both the challenges and the reactions are very situational.
CrowdVoice seems to really be a functioning response to the culture of information overload and increasingly fast-paced news cycle we live in. It’s hard to consume everything, in that sense these platforms seem to be a form of information activism. To what extent do you see these platforms as a response to the digital culture we live in?
When we first founded it, it wasn’t the way it looks right now - it was completely different. It was basically just media feeds. And we thought, people already have information overload, they’re not going to come to a website and just be met with a huge archive of videos and photos and links that they can’t even put into context. It just doesn’t make any sense to them. It was mostly used by journalists at the time, who wanted organized access to all of this information in one place without having to search across the web for every single event, especially because of the language barrier.
CrowdVoice deepens understanding of complex issues through the use of interactive timelines and infographics that tell full, rich stories and expose underlying factors that lie behind the headlines. Because of this, it has found success as a resource for journalists, academics and educators looking to track the course of events that lie behind a current event or social movement. It also prevents the loss of data by archiving and organizing information that pours in from around the web, often from very turbulent regions that go through change rapidly. But more importantly, CrowdVoice preserves the context behind complex issues, so that its users don’t fall into the consequential apathy that comes from an overflow of disconnected information.
In this digital culture, it’s no longer sufficient to just present information. It’s important to also build a case around it to really get through to the crowds. There’s so much unverifiable data, propaganda, and somewhat of a PR war brewing between regime loyalists and those wanting to expose injustices. CrowdVoice is a response to all of that.
If you had to point to an example or two, at the beginning of 2016, what are the most urgently overlooked stories that CrowdVoice is prominently featuring?
I would say one of the examples is the political prisoners in Eritrea - it’s completely appalling, and it’s such a difficult topic to cover due to a lack of sufficient information that it still doesn’t get enough coverage internationally.
The other is forced evictions in India. Considering the number of foreign companies and corporations involved, I would say that it’s not something that gets a lot of coverage either. Also, asylum seekers in Australia - in Australia it’s well talked about, but it’s not really something that a lot of people would actively bring up. Australia has a horrible policy when it comes to asylum-seekers especially under this current administration. If you see some of the facts and figures, you’ll just be appalled that they are getting away with that much abuse. These are just some examples.
There are some stories about mental health on CrowdVoice that don’t really get much attention. Torture in various countries is something that is well represented on the site. We have a lot of things coming out of Mexico, whether it’s violence against journalists, disappearances of students or political advocates, and corruption when it comes to how wealth is accumulated. Violence against women is also a big one. The case of missing people made some waves, but people tend to forget. And that’s one of the problems. There’s always an issue, it kind of reaches a level of awareness internationally, and then it just sort of disappears. Even a topic like Syria goes through waves of silence. So that’s something that CrowdVoice hopes to change. We’re not saying that people should all the time be aware of every single issues that comes up - people have lives, they have kids, they have work, they have jobs. It’s unrealistic to make that request from them. People that get paid to do this don’t even do it that well. Journalists, reporters, people who live abroad whose job is to cover these issues are having an equally hard time keeping up, and that’s their job. So we can’t fault people. But what we can do is build a resource that gives them the access so when they do look for it, they know where to go. And that’s what CrowdVoice does. We’re not here to tell people, “Pay attention or else you’re an asshole." We’re telling people, the information is out there, so don’t deny it. If you want to learn about a cause, or if there’s an issue you care about but don’t have enough information to back it up, that’s the purpose CrowdVoice is here to serve.
One of my inspirations to create CrowdVoice was constantly being met with people telling me, “Hey these things don’t happen that much." Or, “Hey the police didn’t actually kill the protesters, there’s no evidence." So CrowdVoice curates and helps verify that evidence, so you can send one link to people, and everything is in one place, until people realize it’s actually a problem.
It’s important for people to know and to put all of these issues into perspective. And to just enable themselves to have challenging and more informed conversations around these topics. We have a lot of people in the Gulf who are nationalistic - we have so many issues with denial. Why? Because it’s comfortable to be numb here. It’s comfortable because people can survive, and as far as they’re concerned these issues are irrelevant to them, so it doesn’t matter if someone else is suffering. Because their suffering is for your benefit. That kind of self-serving denial is so disturbing on so many levels. And I do think websites like CrowdVoice can actively challenge these types of mentalities. It gets harder and harder to deny facts and figures that are backed with years of research. There’s articles, official reports from reputable entities, videos, images, a timeline with sources, fully backed numbers and figures put into context. All of these resources compiled in one place, organized by topic. There’s something powerful in that.
With the Migrant Workers website, has there been one specific moment where you could see the website making an impact on one particular person?
Yes. Migrant Rights was instrumental in helping a migrant worker get repatriated back to Nepal from Doha, Qatar, where he was unable to leave for 13 years. He was basically stuck in the country - no access to food, no access to jobs, because he doesn’t have documentation. They had been confiscated. There are a lot of situations like these. And when we got ahold of that story, we had an on-the-ground reporter write a series of articles about the situation on Migrant-Rights.org. Eventually it got the attention of international organizations who used their resources to intervene. We worked very closely with them by providing information. There are many incidents like these where we do our absolute best to assist any worker who reaches out for help. It’s worth noting that since the past decade we’ve been the only organization of its kind based in the Gulf.
While there are some success stories affecting individuals, we still have a long way to go to change the system that put him in that situation. Migrant Rights is different because it implements one of the main philosophies behind Majal - that access to information is access to empowerment. It is the only regional organization that can connect resources available to migrants to the people who need them most across borders. The organization is in a position to make these connections more frequently because it builds networks of advocates that can use the available information to call for change on an individual level, helping individuals, and on a social level, by changing opinions and policies that leave migrants vulnerable to begin with.
What are you optimistic/excited about in 2016?
All our projects are growing really fast, Mideast Tunes in particular, and honestly we just want to kick some serious ass.