By Kaley Michael, Staff Writer
Bahraini civil rights activist, blogger, founder of Majal, CrowdVoice.org and Mideast Tunes, and TED Fellow, Esra’a Al Shafei, lectured at this week’s continuation of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Series.
Entitled “Defiance in the Digital Age,” her presentation documented the human rights violations and injustices that permeate her home, a small country on the Eastern side of Saudi Arabia. Her homeland garners very little attention from the international community, but houses thousands of citizens who protest daily for their right to vote and live with some level of dignity.
In her home, violent police suppress their voices, and the area’s protective surveillance requires all to have an active SIM card or phone number and their fingerprints taken and updated every three years. Al Shafei realized, at the age of nine, that she wanted to change the subjugation of her native people; she subsequently decided that the internet was a gateway to freedom of speech.
The activist began her efforts by creating a group blog that consisted of migrants, LGBTQ+ community members, podcasts, and videos. She wanted to bring together individuals from different marginalized groups. Users began to join the multimedia format to have a fierce impact on dialogue, but websites quickly became inaccessible. A lack of VPNs made it nearly impossible to keep websites functioning.
As a solution to the community’s lack of access, Al Shafei created Mideast Tunes, a platform that can now be downloaded in app-form for iPhones and Androids. This website allows thousands of artists to post content that does not appear as political during surveillance unless an investigator is listening in.
Persecuted individuals upload their content to Mideast Tunes. Citizens living within conflict zones use Mideast Tunes to share music that describes their suppressed narratives and voices. Uploading and sharing, however, can be a dangerous act, since singing in a language that is frowned upon is a political offense.
Al Shafei gradually started receiving input from refugees and visited homes; overtime, the database of artists grew to genres of spoken word and slam poetry. At the same time, censorship became stronger, and Al Shafei spent years researching to find an online platform that was protective not only for the website itself but its users.
Eventually, she created AHWAA, which is an Arabic word for passions. This platform was specifically designed for LGBTQ discussion. Users are able to create avatars and post topics that reduce the isolation that stems from extreme anxiety and fear. Each avatar has a heart with a specific color that signifies how trusted they are as a community member.
Despite the platform making its way into Bulgaria and appearing in images, posts, and media reports, people continued to disregard the violence and arrests and Bahrain. Through CrowdVoice, Al Shafei’s online service that tracks protests around the world, people created topics everywhere, especially in Mexico. Mexico utilized the platform to follow disappearances and murders of their journalists.
The platform CrowdVoice enables users to play interactive games as migrant workers trying to figure out a way to leave an abusive employer, though they often get detained if they go to an embassy. Oftentimes, workers end up getting trapped in countries for more than 20 years. In many other similar cases, colleagues of those who suffer in silence remain languishing in prison, and young activists flee only to face poverty abroad. Al Shafei, however, considers giving up to be scarier than these cases of suffering.
Al Shafei’s team first met after 12 years and has been together for 13 years. It was an extremely organic startup that probably would not have been possible without her early progress and constant work. During her talk, she recommended that as United States citizens, we take advantage of the rights Bahraini people are being killed for, but we are lucky enough to have. She also advises Americans to become involved in local politics: run for office and “do not sell weapons to dictators.”
According to Al Shafei, is important to use your voice and understand for whom you are voting. Considering the current state of Europe, she also thinks it is vital that we vote for internet rights. The internet is open, and everybody can build on it. Al Shafei left the audience with a powerful message: Patience, persistence, and long-focus can help us defy in the digital age.