Girls to Watch: Esra’a Al Shafei

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”

It’s just about the moment when we choose to ‘ACT’. She chose to act and created platforms that gave voices to many out there. What she has done or has been doing, has such a penetrating effect on people. They have a medium to reach out to, they are no more under ignorance, and they know how they can act towards a greater good. It is not only empowering, but also, releasing for them.

Esra'a Al ShafeiMeet Esra’a Al Shafei, a Bahraini civil rights activist, blogger, and the founder of Majal.org. She is a senior TED Fellow, an Echoing Green fellow, and has been referred to by CNN reporter George Webster as “An outspoken defender of free speech”. She has been featured in FastCompany as one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business.” In 2011, The Daily Beast listed Al-Shafei as one of the 17 bravest bloggers worldwide. Al-Shafei is a recipient of the Berkman Award for Internet Innovation from Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School in 2008 for “outstanding contributions to the internet and its impact on society.” In 2014, she was featured in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list of social entrepreneurs making an impact in the world. The World Economic Forum listed her as one of “15 Women Changing the World in 2015.”

(For security reasons and in order to protect her identity, Esra’a does not use her real image on the web.)

I feel incredibly honored to interview Esra’a Al Shafei for Girls to Watch Series.


A lot of people underestimate the power of blogging, you, with the help of it, created something as powerful as Mideast Youth. How did you arrive at this idea?

When I first started using the web, I saw enormous potential and limitless possibilities with what we can achieve with it. I didn’t want to start an individual blog, but rather a group one that was open for anyone in the region to join and share their thoughts, regardless of how controversial they are. I wanted a safe space to communicate with people with no reservations, so we can have fierce dialogues about issues that affect us all in our societies. Over time our authors included Baha’is, Kurds, Arab Christians, Arab Jews, migrant workers, members of the LGBT community, and many more. This was significant for us because throughout the region, many oppressive regimes were actively persecuting ethnic and religious minorities, making it very difficult for us to learn from them as many remained silent due to fear. All we knew about them was the propaganda that spread through the state-owned media outlets which only invited further bigotry, division, and hatred. But the diversity found on this platform gave us the strength to move on to become an organization, not just a website. We wanted to live up to the potential to what we can achieve with our diversity. That’s how a decade later we arrived to the platforms which we run today – from music apps, short films, advocacy campaigns, to supporting other nonprofits with their own web presence, and much more. Eventually our work started expanding beyond the region, and for this reason we rebranded to become “Majal.org” – which is the Persian and Arabic word for creating an opportunity, or to make way.

Mideast Youth further unfolds itself into various movements like – CrowdVoice.org, Mideast Tunes, AHWAA, Migrant-Rights.org or Making of a Century. All of them are tied by a single thread of ‘social change’. How are these movements targeting ‘change’ individually?

Each of our projects operate separately from the others, but collectively they create a set of tools that address the most crucial social and political issues of the region. We look at tools or creative approaches that would be useful to have to improve our advocacy but which don’t yet exist, so we create them.

Do you agree that somewhere deep down the basic essence of your work has a connection with Arab Spring? Does it hold any relevance?

We believe in systematic change. That takes an incredibly long time to achieve, it is a very gradual process that requires us to shift conversations and tones about issues that are very controversial to discuss openly. The protests that took place regionally are always relevant because it shows the extent to which we are tired of the corruption that has become our daily norm. Local oppression followed by foreign occupations has become somewhat of a routine for us, and this is why we are working very hard to change our own narratives from within, rather than rely on a single leader or a single movement to define entire populations and their futures. Genuine, long-term social justice is a lot more complicated than that. It takes a lot of work from one generation to the next in order to challenge perspectives and eventually policies to introduce progress in our communities, so that one day we can look back and say that we did everything we could so that we can live in dignity today.

You mentioned in one your interviews that, you have always been interested in stories and movements that are too unpopular to make it to the headlines, or that generally don’t generate international attention. I feel a lot of it is also because of political filtration, issue that are sensitive enough to create a stir nation-wide are quietly drowned or rendered insignificant. What do you think?

I agree. Many topics are silenced or persistently censored, but with the power and influence of the web that has become more challenging for governments and even militant groups to do. For this reason it’s important to constantly push forward and ensure that these stories have a solid presence, so that anyone who wants to learn about these subjects or engage in such conversations (especially from people who are directly affected by these issues,) is fully capable of doing so.

From what you have accomplished so far, how do you intend to take it forward, say, in next five years?

We’re constantly growing and thinking of ways to expand our work and our communities. We’re very inspired by how people have responded to our platforms and campaigns, and that support and encouragement is what helps us push forward to think about our next obstacle and how to tackle it. Five years from now I assure you we’ll still be hard at work finding new and effective ways to influence change, that’s our purpose as an organization.

You can reach out to Esra’a on her official website – Majal.org

By Manvi Pant

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