Majal is providing a global platform for the underrepresented and the marginalised to come together and fight for their rights.
by Julia Migné
Esra’a Al Shafei was drawn to human rights advocacy from a young age. She grew up witnessing the abuse of migrant workers and she quickly realised that most minorities in Bahrain and throughout the Middle East did not have a voice.
Appaled by the regular persecutions these minorities were facing, on the basis of their identities, she decided to act and became involved as a civil rights activist and blogger.
In 2006, she launched Mideast Youth (now known as Majal), a “community-run portal to discuss pressing issues in the Middle East and North Africa”. More than a decade later, the platform has evolved and flourished by continuously “striving for new and innovative ways to make marginalized voices heard.”
Esra’a Al Shafei talks to INKLINE about how the organisation came to life and the incredible breadth of what it has achieved since its creation.
INKLINE: How did Majal come to life and what are the main goals of the organisation?
Esra’a Al Shafei: Majal was first launched as “Mideast Youth” in 2006. The goal was to have a shared platform to discuss a wide range of human rights issues, especially those that concern underrepresented and marginalised communities.
Today, Majal’s goal is to amplify these voices through innovative, specialised digital tools and platforms.
I: Could you tell us about the various platforms you’ve developed so far?
At Majal, we run several platforms. They are:
CrowdVoice.org – an open source tool that curates and contextualizes data on social movements, Mideast Tunes – the largest platform for regional underground musicians who use music as a tool for advocacy, Ahwaa.org – a bilingual tool for LGBTQ youth in the Arab world that leverages game mechanics to facilitate high-quality interactions, and Migrant-Rights.org – the primary resource on the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf.
We also have multiple community sites and side projects where we explore new ideas and assist other organisations in expanding their presence online.
Majal addresses issues that receive little or no attention, and every project we undertake connects back to our core beliefs of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘access to information’.
I: The organisation has been running for over a decade now, could you tell us what have been the highlights so far in terms of the impact you’ve had?
E: Highlights vary from project to project and are reflective of their stakeholders. For example, our LGBTQ platform Ahwaa is now the largest digital space of its kind, with nearly 9,000 members and 3,000 topics within unique cultural and regional contexts. Ahwaa connects its users to support that’s often difficult to come by locally
Migrant-rights.org (MR) is the premier platform for advancing the rights of migrant workers in the GCC and includes interactive tools for migrants, an extensive database of partner organizations, as well as in-depth on-the-ground research and reportage in both countries of origin and the Gulf region. MR additionally works with actors from around the region and sending countries to influence discourse and policy surrounding migration.
Mideast Tunes (MET) is both a web and mobile app housing the largest selection of independent music from around the Middle East and North Africa, with over 2,000 artists and 11k tracks.
Artists on MET use music as a tool for social justice advocacy and artistic free expression. As the platform has grown, MET has branched out to include podcasts, digital media production training sessions for the youth, and even documentary films showcasing the local independent music scene.
CrowdVoice archives crowdsourced media regarding social movements around the world and seeks to add context and nuance to complex and ongoing human rights issues using interactive educational tools such as timelines and infographics.
CrowdVoice hosts hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of media ranging from news articles to firsthand video on over 500 topics. Resources found on CrowdVoice have been used as evidence in international courts, and the platform has been integrated into the curriculum of universities around the world.
“Be cautious about whom you accept funding from also for the sake of long-term credibility: always be in full control your own narrative, voice, and agenda. “
I: What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced working on Majal?
E: Censorship, security, and financial sustainability are all major challenges that we regularly face. Providing secure technical infrastructure is not simple and not many funders understand the expenses involved in cautious technical development.
However, digital platforms are crucial to movement amplification and accessibility, especially in repressive climates, and are an important component in advancing ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘access to information’.
They require investment– it has been a monumental challenge to sustain these projects for as many years as we have, especially considering that even their growth presents additional expenses in the form of server fees, etc.
I: Why did you decide to transition from Mideast Youth to Majal in 2015?
E: Because our work was being implemented in several other countries outside of the MENA region, we felt that “Mideast Youth” no longer reflected our vision and mission going forward.
“Majal” is the Arabic and Persian word for creating an opportunity, or carving a path, which is much more suitable for our current and future goals, as well as our long-term vision.
I: Giving a voice to under-represented voices such as the LGBTQ community can be dangerous, how do you and your team cope with the risk?
E: We do our best to stay below the radar, and providing a space for LGBTQ discussions isn’t necessarily advocacy, so we receive fewer confrontations as a result. We also ensure anonymity on the site, encrypting data to keep our users as safe as possible.
We’ve also developed a gamified community-powered defence system to insulate our users, and the more sensitive features of the Ahwaa platform, from trolls and bad actors.
I: Could you tell us more about your team and how it’s grown in the past decade?
E: Our team is very small, partially due to limited resources but also due to the fact that small teams are naturally far more prolific due to the lack of bureaucracy seen in much larger organisations.
We have a team leader for each of our projects and we trust them to make key decisions related to their respective platforms. But we all take part in the same strategic path and follow the same vision for long-term growth and sustainability. This has worked very well for us.
“‘Majal’ is the Arabic and Persian word for creating an opportunity, or carving a path.”
I: Anything exciting in the pipeline to share with us?
E: Yes! We are just getting ready to relaunch Migrant-Rights.org with a new design and features such as a better way to track abuses on a map and more interactive storytelling to really highlight the injustices faced by migrant workers in the Gulf.
We also just launched the new version of Ahwaa.org. Finally, we hope to be launching a Farsi version of our Mideast Tunes apps soon, considering the number of artists and traffic we have from Iran.
E: If you could give one piece of advice to people who want to become human rights activists or who are committed to social justice, what would it be?
E: Persistence is key. Many efforts will only see an impact years from now– without that level of persistence and consistency, it is very difficult to achieve. I would advise ignoring the hype.
Be cautious about whom you accept funding from, also for the sake of long-term credibility: always be in full control your own narrative, voice, and agenda. This will protect you and your organisation’s authenticity and your reputation with your stakeholders.