“Fear shouldn’t eat into your ambition”: Fellows Friday with Esra’a Al Shafei

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Esra’a Al Shafei was outraged by the injustices she saw against minorities in her region. She created MideastYouth.com as a platform for people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to openly discuss a wide range of taboos and underrepresented issues. The group’s latest venture? Tackling their most controversial issue yet with Ahwaa.org, a forum for talking about LGBTQ issues in the MENA region.

In your country, bringing the plight of oppressed people to light can mean considerable personal risk. Are you afraid?

Sometimes I am. I have to be careful. I think it’s very clear that anything can happen in this region, and no one is off limits.

But fear shouldn’t eat into your ambition. If you want to do something, to contribute something good, sometimes you have to put your own life on the line to get the word out. That’s nothing that should drag you back –- if anything, it should give you more energy.

As the face of the organization, I try to be wise domestically, and stay clear of imprisonment. I’m usually more worried about others that I work with than I am about myself, to be honest.

My plans for the future are much more controversial than what I’m dealing with today.      With that in mind, I want to be as safe as I can be as I delve into more controversial issues.

What are some of those contentious issues?

We just founded Ahwaa.org. It’s a discussion platform for the LGBTQ community. “Ahwaa” means “passions” in Arabic. The site leverages game mechanics to facilitate authentic and high-quality interactions for LGBTQ youth in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a bilingual tool, and we’re very excited about it.

People go there to very openly discuss issues they have pertaining to their identity. It’s also for people who have LGBTQ persons as siblings, and they want to know how to deal with it, people who have issues with reconciling religion and their sexual orientation, etc.

It’s definitely a very controversial issue. This is something that is punishable by imprisonment or death, depending on where you are. We’ve had some negative feedback about it, because many people here feel so strongly against it. But a lot of feedback has also been positive. We feel it’s a very needed tool.

This is one of the issues that we want to focus a lot of attention on in the next couple of years.

What have the revolutions in the MENA region meant for MideastYouth.com?

One of our main websites, CrowdVoice.org, has been censored here. It has been censored since the 17th of February, three days after the protests started in Bahrain. CrowdVoice was actually very prominent in documenting and illustrating the protests. Not just here in Bahrain, but everywhere in the region.

Videos, photos, news articles, social media were all employed by people involved. It’s been important for people to have a tool that allows them to quickly explore what’s going on in this region. It gives you a way to illustrate the revolutions. The UN Dispatch blog and The Guardian used it for their reporting, and it was featured on places like TechCrunch and Fast Company.

Was there a specific incident that compelled you to start Mideast Youth?

When I was 9 I saw a maid who was a migrant worker being beaten by her employer. That was when I really began to be aware of the many injustices in our region, particularly against migrant workers.

When I was 18 or 19, in 2006, I started MideastYouth.com.  At that time I was really just exploring how to use the Internet. I realized right away that it was going to be the tool, the weapon, with which we can advocate for change.

I felt we really needed a progressive network that was representative of so many different people in the region. I wanted there to be a platform in which we can amplify diverse and progressive voices advocating for change throughout the region.

Our strength is in our diversity, so we make sure that we have as many religions and as many ethnicities from this region as possible represented. We hear them speak, in their own voices, of their issues, human rights violations, or any aspirations they have. These people are often unrecognized. I wanted to use this as a platform that helps give such religious and ethnic minorities more visibility.

Besides Ahwaa.org, you have many other projects that grew out of MideastYouth.com.

When I founded Mideast Youth, it was primarily just the idea of a single network that merged all of these voices together, in several languages. (So far we run in English, Arabic and Farsi.) But it quickly expanded in to many different projects that we’ve incorporated into our vision.

We’ve created separate platforms that addressed issues we felt were not being fought for in a very public way in our region. People who are not mainstream often lack the tools that allow them to be heard. We began creating sites like kurdishrights.org, bahairights.org, migrant-rights.org.

Image courtesy of Bahairights.org

We’ve now begun expanding even more into tools and applications that can help multiply these voices and efforts, with CrowdVoice being the first attempt.

Are you yourself part of a religious or ethnic minority in your region?

I’m not part of a minority: I’m an Arab and a Muslim. And even as part of the dominant group, I don’t have all my rights. No freedom of speech, no sufficient political rights. And yet, I’m almost free in comparison to these other individuals whose rights are completely ignored.

I wanted to take this on by having Arabs and Muslims stand up for minorities in our countries. To let these minorities know that there are people out there who are aware of what is going on, and who stand with them in the struggle as well.

Most of the minorities I’m aware of today, I became aware of because of Mideast Youth. I really had no idea they were going to be using the site. At the time, my idea of minorities was limited to atheists and the LGBTQ community. I was not really focusing on anything beyond that. But then I realized there were Baha’is, Kurds, Assyrians and others signing up to use MideastYouth.com, and I used this opportunity to learn about them. Mideast Youth has been really educational for me. When I created it, I was still ignorant about so many of the issues that we currently have huge advocacy campaigns for.

As part of the majority, how do you connect with these issues on a personal level?

Well, I really got involved in the Kurdish struggle because I was listening to Kurdish hip hop. My friend was translating some of the lyrics – she was Kurdish herself – and the song was all about oppression, and the need for freedom, and need for unity.

Image courtesy of kurdishrights.org

It helped me realize how painful it is for the Kurdish people. Connecting with other Kurdish activists who provided facts and statistics, as well as personal stories, helped me understand their struggle. They would talk about their fathers who were killed, their siblings who were still fighting for their freedom at home, and what they went through as children.

Did you say Kurdish hip hop?

Yeah, all my favorite musicians are on Mideast Tunes. I love everything from trance to metal. If it has a great message, I’m listening to it.

Mideast Tunes brings underground musicians together. They are musicians in the region that advocate for social change. The site is about building a platform for people to find these musicians and be able to browse through a wide range of regional underground bands. People think it’s really cool.

Music is a big motivator for me. I love listening to music and working at the same time. When something really great happens, I listen to music to celebrate.

You’ve mentioned that you got a lot of inspiration from watching movies. What are your favorite films?

Before Mideast Youth, I was a complete movie buff. I’d watch movies every night. West Beirut and Battle Royale are my two favorites.

Since starting Mideast Youth I’ve had no time for movies. But I believe in the power of video. A huge part of Mideast Youth is videos. It takes about 30-40percent of my time, thinking up new videos, writing scripts. We do a lot of videos that have been featured at festivals. They’re all under three minutes, because that seems to be the average attention span for people today.

All of your websites seem to have a strong visual component.

That’s a huge part of us: of who we are and what we do. It’s pretty much our strategy. It’s so anyone who wants to contribute who’s not a good writer, can talk to us via podcast or video or whatever. It’s also a way for us to better communicate with people.

We think that’s a very good way for us to build relationships with traditional media outlets. We have had our comics published in local magazines and newspapers, and our videos featured in television, which allows the material to reach a much larger audience.

Image courtesy of bahairights.org

You just have to target so many different people. Through art you can tap into a huge audience that would otherwise never listen to anything that you have to say.

Image courtesy of bahairights.org.

If we weren’t using music, pictures, tools, illustrations, or comics and occasionally introducing a unique or humorous element in to it … if we weren’t using video that allows people to really have an emotional connection to these issues, we couldn’t foster such strong connections.

How has TED Fellowship impacted you and your work?

TED Global 2009 was my first TED experience. I loved meeting the other TED Fellows, that’s what TED is all about for me. I made some of my best friends at TED Global 2009. We have been able to network and put our brains together.

The Senior Fellowship was an even bigger experience. First of all, it allowed me to meet another class of Fellows, plus the Senior Fellows, who are an amazing group of people. The networking, ideas, encouragement, help and support that they provide technically or otherwise was just really fantastic.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? 

Miracles don’t just happen. Sometimes you have to work five years, and then you create something that is finally a success.

If no one else believes in your idea, just find a way to make it work. I spent two years trying to make Mideast Youth work, because no one would give me support or help. I even had a hard time assembling bloggers who were interested in writing for us because few believed in the idea of highlighting and celebrating diversity. It was only after 2008 that we really saw success. We’ve been working every single day since 2006. Make it work: give it your all and keep building.