Esra'a Al Shafei, Founder & Director of Majal.org, Bahrain | 2018 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards Nominee

What is Majal.org?

At Majal.Org we build digital platforms to amplify the voices of underrepresented and marginalized communities in the Middle East.

Why was that so important to you to start this kind of platform in the Middle East?

Growing up in a society that was so closed, where you are surrounded by injustices, I really wanted a space where we can talk about these issues. Whether it's taboo topics, where we can just be creative also with a lot of different ideas, I really wanted to create a space where we also did not feel isolated because of our differences because of our backgrounds, political, religious, sexuality, and so on. I really wanted just to build this space, and find a way where we can empower each other, build a supportive community, but through creative and innovative tools. 

copyright Vital Voices

copyright Vital Voices

Who is the 'we' that you're talking about and how do you fit into that we?

The we I'm talking about it, are the people I grew up with, my community in the Middle East, the people that surround us all the time, whether it's our colleagues, our friends, our families. I just saw that there were so many opportunities that were not being met and what the Internet provided were limitless opportunities where we could reach so many more people even beyond our immediate borders. I really wanted to build a platform that was truly regional, which is actually right now becoming more and more global as well.

What motivated you to make this happen? What was that aha moment?

I was using the internet and it was really excited about it, but really I didn't see that there were platforms being built by us, or being built with us and our considerations and our needs in mind. So for that reason, I really wanted to be sure that we were not using the Internet as it was built. We were not using third party technologies only. We don't view the internet as just Google and Facebook and Twitter. We are actually actively creating our own platforms where we can be ourselves, where we can control our own data, control our own information, and really be completely liberal with just our features. You know, one day we need a new feature, we can build it ourselves and just reach as many different people as we can just through really engaging ways of, you know, platforms and mobile applications. And so on.

Do you mean the community of women? Is there a particular community  that you thought about that didn't have that voice? And this is when the Internet was first coming out...we're talking about over a decade ago, right? 

Yeah. It was not just women that we were focusing on, but also marginalized communities including migrant workers, including people who are part of ethnic and religious minorities who just felt isolated, out of place. And we were repeating the pattern that we were living offline. We were divided, we were disconnected, we were surrounded by propaganda and the Internet enabled us to topple that, to correct that narrative, to correct the agenda, and to turn it into ours, to turn it into an agenda that was about our rights, our dignity and social justice. 

How does one person in the middle of the Middle East, who is struggling to find that voice, struggling to find how you could share that voice, do what you've done?

For me to do all of this, required an enormous amount of patience, persistence, loneliness. I mean, there were many times where I've felt I'm not communicating this idea enough because not enough people are getting behind it. I'm not getting the support, I'm not getting the funding, so maybe I should do something else, you know, or maybe I should just get a job and get married and not have to worry about these social expectations. But, something in me just said, to keep going. And I had to teach myself how to develop websites at a very early stage, how to register a domain, how to start generating a community around an issue, how to reach people. And it really took a decade to get to where I am today. I had to sometimes lose an audience because one of our platforms got hacked and we don't have the resources to correct it. 

 It was just a lot of challenges and obstacles. But really, the passion was always there. I always knew that I wanted people to view the Middle East as a place where there's innovation, where people are actually creating things. And that made me just continue, every single day. And slowly other people started realizing that, oh, I used to volunteer for this platform six years ago. It's still around, and also my, my best team members are actually the same people who started with me, gave up somewhere in the middle, but then realized this is going to continue. So that's what gave me the courage and the strength to also just say, okay, I'm going to continue on this path, if I do it alone, so be it. If others come along, that would be amazing and others did come along and I'm very grateful for that. To have built a team and a network around a lot of these ideas. 

Tell us where it's come to today from where it began. There were times when you were in this all by yourself with very limited money. How does one person sustain what they're doing? 

It's a huge personal sacrifice. You have to sacrifice stability. You have to sacrifice relationships because this takes a lot of time. You have to sacrifice security. You have to sacrifice your reputation, your family's reputation. You have to stand up against your society and say, yes, even at this age I can be self employed on the Internet and not be considered a loser, for example, you know, who is unemployed or a jobless person. There's a lot of misunderstanding about still social entrepreneurs in the region. It's still a concept that's relatively new. 

 

So I still struggled quite a bit explaining to my family, for example, what it is that I do, you know. I still struggle, for example, a lot of the team members that had to leave the organization but not because they wanted to, but because of societal pressure, because their families said it's time for you to grow up and this is not growing up. People really see the Internet as just a space that you go and you rant and you access information but you don't use it to create information that other people can access. And that's one thing that I really wanted to ensure that we had. It's just something that we can create the content ourselves that we can be in control of the message. 

 

So when I first started, it was completely very, very much alone. 

 But then slowly I started putting a team together, our whole team is made up of women right now. We're about 10 women and from throughout the region. So Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, we have even people in Mexico and India. It's also starting to expand globally. That's something I really take pride in, but the most thing that I take pride in is the fact that such a small group of people, such a small network with very little funding, most of whom by the way are still volunteers. We were able to reach hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people and  we take pride in the fact that we were able to overcome so many obstacles and challenges just to get there. 

That's pretty powerful. 

Yeah. I'd like to think so. The challenges were numerous between security, between lack of resources, between these societal expectations that said that women, for example, couldn't successfully lead an internet business, let alone and Internet run, movement that talks about very difficult things. 

That's really one thing that keeps me going because I do think it's important that in the future a lot of women, girls even now, can take a look and say this is a possibility to start. But I also want to remind people, persistence is key. It took me a decade and it was a very long and very lonely and very isolating decade. But where we are now, the results are incredibly fruitful. 

Let's talk about societal pressure. Here we are doing an interview and we can’t see your face.

So for me, of course security is very important. I come from Bahrain. It's a very small country. Everybody knows everybody. People know my name, you know, of course governments, they know what I look like because I use, I do use my real name. My name is not a pseudonym. I think I have been able to get away with so much because of this big step I take in maintaining my physical anonymity, because it's also a way for me to say that it's possible to do this work and to be visible, and to be public and to build these platforms, and still have a lot of respect for my own privacy and expecting others to also respect my privacy. Even though I'm not in danger right now, tomorrow I could be or tomorrow I can build a more controversial platform and I wouldn't have to worry so much about, oh, but they know what I look like and they know where I live and they know all of these other details. For that reason, I have to be incredibly secretive and cautious about how I communicate, using secure and encrypted messaging techniques and all of these things. 

What kind of danger or are we talking about?

The danger is really… it's multiplied. So the danger could be that, I travel someplace and people know that, I do a lot of work for LGBT rights for example, or I do a lot of work with, Syrian advocates. I do a lot of work with, you know, Yemeni activists. A lot of work that actually can publicize and these, if I were to do it under my name, if I do it with my face, if I were to talk about it publicly and someone were to take a photo or a video, that's something that can really put me at risk and more importantly, my family. So that's something I really have to honor and protect. 

In a couple sentences, describe to me what is majal.org and what can we find there? What are the platforms? 

Majal.org has become an ecosystem of diverse platforms, all of them creative, all of them very innovative in the way they're designed and applied, where we talk about very difficult things,, just through amplifying people's voices, whether it's an LGBT platform, for example, where we use gaming to protect and engage our community or mideast tunes, which is a music application that showcases underground and independent musicians from around the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social justice. It's really redefining, in the age of censorship and surveillance, how do we access information? How do we express ourselves through very creative techniques that can enable us to bypass those obstacles. 

What would you say to someone who may be watching and who needs this platform for support? 

For them? I would say to use the platforms, they're there. But if you ever felt that you need a specific platform,  you're a part of a community that is may be unrecognized or unnoticed or persecuted, you can also build a platform and you can create a niche community around that. It doesn't have to be a platform that's used by millions of people for it to be powerful. Some of the best communities I've been a part of online have actually been communities of just 200 and 300 people who are just very engaged and very alert and are just trying to do very particular things and amazing things have come out of that. So the Internet is completely limitless. It's not there just for you to use the tools available on it, you can create on it. If you are a creator, you will be an enabler. And once you're an enabler, you will be seeing and witnessing amazing things that can happen and a lot of injustices that will go untalked about, and people being held accountable as a result of your persistence and hard work and creativity. 

The other thing is that I can't see you and yet, and you've created this and you've kept your sense of humor. You have said, okay, I've had to deal with this. You are telling us your success story but there's been a lot of hardship involved. How have you have kept your sense of humor?

Having a sense of humor while doing this kind of work where you're dealing with people - domestic workers being executed, LGBT individuals being abandoned and homeless and wanting a place to stay because their parents found out and they don't know where to go or they haven't been accepted into exile, dealing with people who are suicidal perhaps. There are a lot of really personal issues that affect you, that influence you. You are surrounded by conflicts and injustice and foreign occupations and militant groups. It can really make you hopeless. 

What brings us together really as a community is not just our passion for justice, but it's also our humanity. And, I think the best way to communicate with an audience, the best way to connect is sometimes not to go on stage and say these are all the horrible things because we know it, we see it every single day. We live it. For me it’s to make fun of it. You know, I always make fun of, for example, how small Bahrain is and I make fun of just the background and I make fun of finding interesting ways to connect with the audience that is not about sadness, that's not about the tears but about the laughter. Because a lot of the time they will remember the laughter, and they will remember you, and they will remember the messages uplifting rather than depressing. 

 When people think of us as in the Middle East it is always was very depressing and it's just surrounded by people who pity us. We don't want that. We want them to be proud of us. We want them to understand us. We want them to hear our stories. And humor is a fantastic way to do that. 

So you're saying, there's a lot of funny people in Bahrain. 

I would say. So there are actually a lot..it depends on the kind of humor. There's a lot of dark comedy in Bahrain and in the Gulf in general, but we are a funny crowd for sure. Yeah. So we invite you all to come. It's definitely funnier than a lot of sitcoms you'll find in the US actually. 

Describe a moment when you felt powerful, through all you've done and all you have achieved.

I felt really powerful when people would say, for example, I was incredibly isolated and I was suicidal and I joined the platform and I found this incredible supportive community, and I realized I wasn't alone. There I knew that the work itself is powerful. The only thing that makes me powerful is that I enable it, but it's the community that is actually powerful. Without the community none of it would be powerful. None if it would have an impact. So the honor and everything is just the privilege is working with them. The people who are brave enough, who have the courage to trust us, and to trust this platform and to engage, because it is a very difficult step. Sometimes it's easier to build it, it's harder actually to use it. So, I think really a lot of that goes back to our community. And that amazing community we've been able to build in the last decade has really been just about people wanting to be visible, to stop hiding, to control their own narrative, and ultimately their own lives. 

The we I'm talking about it, are the people I grew up with, my community in the Middle East, the people that surround us all the time, whether it's our colleagues, our friends, our families. I just saw that there were so many opportunities that were not being met and what the Internet provided were limitless opportunities where we could reach so many more people even beyond our immediate borders. I really wanted to build a platform that was truly regional, which is actually right now becoming more and more global as well.

What motivated you to make this happen? What was that aha moment?

I was using the internet and it was really excited about it, but really I didn't see that there were platforms being built by us, or being built with us and our considerations and our needs in mind. So for that reason, I really wanted to be sure that we were not using the Internet as it was built. We were not using third party technologies only. We don't view the internet as just Google and Facebook and Twitter. We are actually actively creating our own platforms where we can be ourselves, where we can control our own data, control our own information, and really be completely liberal with just our features. You know, one day we need a new feature, we can build it ourselves and just reach as many different people as we can just through really engaging ways of, you know, platforms and mobile applications. And so on.

Do you mean the community of women? Is there a particular community  that you thought about that didn't have that voice? And this is when the Internet was first coming out...we're talking about over a decade ago, right? 

Yeah. It was not just women that we were focusing on, but also marginalized communities including migrant workers, including people who are part of ethnic and religious minorities who just felt isolated, out of place. And we were repeating the pattern that we were living offline. We were divided, we were disconnected, we were surrounded by propaganda and the Internet enabled us to topple that, to correct that narrative, to correct the agenda, and to turn it into ours, to turn it into an agenda that was about our rights, our dignity and social justice. 

How does one person in the middle of the Middle East, who is struggling to find that voice, struggling to find how you could share that voice, do what you've done?

For me to do all of this, required an enormous amount of patience, persistence, loneliness. I mean, there were many times where I've felt I'm not communicating this idea enough because not enough people are getting behind it. I'm not getting the support, I'm not getting the funding, so maybe I should do something else, you know, or maybe I should just get a job and get married and not have to worry about these social expectations. But, something in me just said, to keep going. And I had to teach myself how to develop websites at a very early stage, how to register a domain, how to start generating a community around an issue, how to reach people. And it really took a decade to get to where I am today. I had to sometimes lose an audience because one of our platforms got hacked and we don't have the resources to correct it. 

 It was just a lot of challenges and obstacles. But really, the passion was always there. I always knew that I wanted people to view the Middle East as a place where there's innovation, where people are actually creating things. And that made me just continue, every single day. And slowly other people started realizing that, oh, I used to volunteer for this platform six years ago. It's still around, and also my, my best team members are actually the same people who started with me, gave up somewhere in the middle, but then realized this is going to continue. So that's what gave me the courage and the strength to also just say, okay, I'm going to continue on this path, if I do it alone, so be it. If others come along, that would be amazing and others did come along and I'm very grateful for that. To have built a team and a network around a lot of these ideas. 

Tell us where it's come to today from where it began. There were times when you were in this all by yourself with very limited money. How does one person sustain what they're doing? 

It's a huge personal sacrifice. You have to sacrifice stability. You have to sacrifice relationships because this takes a lot of time. You have to sacrifice security. You have to sacrifice your reputation, your family's reputation. You have to stand up against your society and say, yes, even at this age I can be self employed on the Internet and not be considered a loser, for example, you know, who is unemployed or a jobless person. There's a lot of misunderstanding about still social entrepreneurs in the region. It's still a concept that's relatively new. 

 

So I still struggled quite a bit explaining to my family, for example, what it is that I do, you know. I still struggle, for example, a lot of the team members that had to leave the organization but not because they wanted to, but because of societal pressure, because their families said it's time for you to grow up and this is not growing up. People really see the Internet as just a space that you go and you rant and you access information but you don't use it to create information that other people can access. And that's one thing that I really wanted to ensure that we had. It's just something that we can create the content ourselves that we can be in control of the message. 

 

So when I first started, it was completely very, very much alone. 

 But then slowly I started putting a team together, our whole team is made up of women right now. We're about 10 women and from throughout the region. So Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, we have even people in Mexico and India. It's also starting to expand globally. That's something I really take pride in, but the most thing that I take pride in is the fact that such a small group of people, such a small network with very little funding, most of whom by the way are still volunteers. We were able to reach hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people and  we take pride in the fact that we were able to overcome so many obstacles and challenges just to get there. 

That's pretty powerful. 

Yeah. I'd like to think so. The challenges were numerous between security, between lack of resources, between these societal expectations that said that women, for example, couldn't successfully lead an internet business, let alone and Internet run, movement that talks about very difficult things. 

That's really one thing that keeps me going because I do think it's important that in the future a lot of women, girls even now, can take a look and say this is a possibility to start. But I also want to remind people, persistence is key. It took me a decade and it was a very long and very lonely and very isolating decade. But where we are now, the results are incredibly fruitful. 

Let's talk about societal pressure. Here we are doing an interview and we can’t see your face.

So for me, of course security is very important. I come from Bahrain. It's a very small country. Everybody knows everybody. People know my name, you know, of course governments, they know what I look like because I use, I do use my real name. My name is not a pseudonym. I think I have been able to get away with so much because of this big step I take in maintaining my physical anonymity, because it's also a way for me to say that it's possible to do this work and to be visible, and to be public and to build these platforms, and still have a lot of respect for my own privacy and expecting others to also respect my privacy. Even though I'm not in danger right now, tomorrow I could be or tomorrow I can build a more controversial platform and I wouldn't have to worry so much about, oh, but they know what I look like and they know where I live and they know all of these other details. For that reason, I have to be incredibly secretive and cautious about how I communicate, using secure and encrypted messaging techniques and all of these things. 

What kind of danger or are we talking about?

The danger is really… it's multiplied. So the danger could be that, I travel someplace and people know that, I do a lot of work for LGBT rights for example, or I do a lot of work with, Syrian advocates. I do a lot of work with, you know, Yemeni activists. A lot of work that actually can publicize and these, if I were to do it under my name, if I do it with my face, if I were to talk about it publicly and someone were to take a photo or a video, that's something that can really put me at risk and more importantly, my family. So that's something I really have to honor and protect. 

In a couple sentences, describe to me what is majal.org and what can we find there? What are the platforms? 

Majal.org has become an ecosystem of diverse platforms, all of them creative, all of them very innovative in the way they're designed and applied, where we talk about very difficult things,, just through amplifying people's voices, whether it's an LGBT platform, for example, where we use gaming to protect and engage our community or mideast tunes, which is a music application that showcases underground and independent musicians from around the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social justice. It's really redefining, in the age of censorship and surveillance, how do we access information? How do we express ourselves through very creative techniques that can enable us to bypass those obstacles. 

What would you say to someone who may be watching and who needs this platform for support? 

For them? I would say to use the platforms, they're there. But if you ever felt that you need a specific platform,  you're a part of a community that is may be unrecognized or unnoticed or persecuted, you can also build a platform and you can create a niche community around that. It doesn't have to be a platform that's used by millions of people for it to be powerful. Some of the best communities I've been a part of online have actually been communities of just 200 and 300 people who are just very engaged and very alert and are just trying to do very particular things and amazing things have come out of that. So the Internet is completely limitless. It's not there just for you to use the tools available on it, you can create on it. If you are a creator, you will be an enabler. And once you're an enabler, you will be seeing and witnessing amazing things that can happen and a lot of injustices that will go untalked about, and people being held accountable as a result of your persistence and hard work and creativity. 

The other thing is that I can't see you and yet, and you've created this and you've kept your sense of humor. You have said, okay, I've had to deal with this. You are telling us your success story but there's been a lot of hardship involved. How have you have kept your sense of humor?

Having a sense of humor while doing this kind of work where you're dealing with people - domestic workers being executed, LGBT individuals being abandoned and homeless and wanting a place to stay because their parents found out and they don't know where to go or they haven't been accepted into exile, dealing with people who are suicidal perhaps. There are a lot of really personal issues that affect you, that influence you. You are surrounded by conflicts and injustice and foreign occupations and militant groups. It can really make you hopeless. 

What brings us together really as a community is not just our passion for justice, but it's also our humanity. And, I think the best way to communicate with an audience, the best way to connect is sometimes not to go on stage and say these are all the horrible things because we know it, we see it every single day. We live it. For me it’s to make fun of it. You know, I always make fun of, for example, how small Bahrain is and I make fun of just the background and I make fun of finding interesting ways to connect with the audience that is not about sadness, that's not about the tears but about the laughter. Because a lot of the time they will remember the laughter, and they will remember you, and they will remember the messages uplifting rather than depressing. 

 When people think of us as in the Middle East it is always was very depressing and it's just surrounded by people who pity us. We don't want that. We want them to be proud of us. We want them to understand us. We want them to hear our stories. And humor is a fantastic way to do that. 

So you're saying, there's a lot of funny people in Bahrain. 

I would say. So there are actually a lot..it depends on the kind of humor. There's a lot of dark comedy in Bahrain and in the Gulf in general, but we are a funny crowd for sure. Yeah. So we invite you all to come. It's definitely funnier than a lot of sitcoms you'll find in the US actually. 

Describe a moment when you felt powerful, through all you've done and all you have achieved.

I felt really powerful when people would say, for example, I was incredibly isolated and I was suicidal and I joined the platform and I found this incredible supportive community, and I realized I wasn't alone. There I knew that the work itself is powerful. The only thing that makes me powerful is that I enable it, but it's the community that is actually powerful. Without the community none of it would be powerful. None if it would have an impact. So the honor and everything is just the privilege is working with them. The people who are brave enough, who have the courage to trust us, and to trust this platform and to engage, because it is a very difficult step. Sometimes it's easier to build it, it's harder actually to use it. So, I think really a lot of that goes back to our community. And that amazing community we've been able to build in the last decade has really been just about people wanting to be visible, to stop hiding, to control their own narrative, and ultimately their own lives. 

Ms. Media