23 Jun, 16

Envisioning a World Where No One's Voice is Silenced

Esra'a Al Shafei is an impassioned civil rights activist living and working in Bahrain where she runs the organization Majal (fka as Mideast Youth). She works to liberate voices in the Middle East and North Africa and assist in the spread of global ideas and culture. One of her projects includes MideastTunes, a semi-anonymized platform for underground musicians. Al Shafei knows that music is a source of liberation for so many and has used her bravery, which has been noted everywhere from CNN to The Daily Beast, as means to deliver information where it may not otherwise be serviced. She has been a Shuttleworth fellow and called one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by FastCompany. Here she writes about why this is a necessity not only to people's minds, but their survival.

When it comes to the role that the Internet plays in the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes stereotypes and assumptions limit its full potential.

One assumption is that innovation travels in one direction, from West to East, while consumption and education happens in the East, from the West. In fact, when it comes to the human rights issues of marginalized communities around the world, the widespread assumption is that they do not have a voice. Not as many Western innovators sit back and ask if they are listening to the voices that are already there.

We have a vision of a different map of online activism, one where innovation and information travel globally, not just in one direction.

This is where Majal, formerly known as Mideast Youth, prides itself on being different. We have two goals at the heart of everything we do: freedom of expression, and access to information. We have a vision of a different map of online activism, one where innovation and information travel globally, not just in one direction. The Middle East, and other underrepresented communities around the world, have always had their own movers and shakers, and singers and writers. The team at Majal seeks to build platforms that amplify rather than co-opt their voices. Two of our biggest projects, CrowdVoice and Mideast Tunes, embody what we see are the core values of our work as online activists and innovators.

Mideast Tunes is the largest platform for independent musicians who use music as a tool for social change in the Middle East and North Africa. Our mission is to unite people across social, political and religious barriers by creating constructive discourse through music. We feel that the Middle East and North Africa is often ignored as a source of highly thought provoking music that draws not just on modern genres but on a rich cultural and political history as well.

Mideast Tunes has reinforced the value of music as more than just a creative outlet, but as a social tool that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities, especially youth, in a way that transforms the entire narrative around the Middle East and North Africa. These regions are seen in the U.S. and in the West in general as dominated by Islam, and thus limited in culture, creativity and inspiration. By creating the go-to place to find artists from across the Middle East and North Africa, these myths will be easily dispelled when a listener, regardless of his or her prior experience with the region’s music and culture, can enjoy and relate to so many of the passionate artists who reach into their religious and cultural roots for inspiration. The individual experience of listening to music then becomes a bridge that builds a common bond between listeners in the West and artists in the Middle East and North Africa, and with that bridge, these artists and their communities are seen as dynamic individuals with a message to share, rather than merely victims or terrorists.

CrowdVoice.org is our second major platform that also builds important bridges in its own, very different way. CrowdVoice is an open source service that tracks voices of protest by curating and contextualizing valuable data, such as eyewitness videos, photos, and reports as a means to facilitate awareness regarding current social justice movements worldwide. The complexities of current and past issues have proven that news reports are not enough, and neither is mere curation. To truly do justice to struggles around the world, people need to be presented with the story, then the numerical facts and their relevant sources, then they need to be able to engage with the content and have the ability to add more information so that more primary sources and raw videos can be taken into account. Just like Mideast Tunes turns music into a cultural message, CrowdVoice turns news about current events into a dynamic, vibrant story, with valuable context that humanizes what’s often presented in dehumanizing narratives.

On the micro level, Mideast Tunes and CrowdVoice are incredibly different platforms. After all, writing about a Kurdish rapper is a very different sort of activism than making aninfographic about kidnappings in Mexico. But on the macroscopic level, the team behind Majal are acutely aware of how exactly both Mideast Tunes and CrowdVoice both work together to advance the two core missions behind everything we do – access to information (CrowdVoice) and freedom of expression (Mideast Tunes). These two projects in particular are two sides of the same coin; how aware we are of the world affects how eloquently we can express ourselves about it.

But as noble as the goal of advancing information and expression may be, leaving it at that is short-sighted in comparison to how much needs to be done. Ultimately, Mideast Tunes and CrowdVoice are two of many projects that Majal has undertaken to nurture, protect, and amplify some of the most underrepresented voices on the planet. We implement these platforms because we believe, ultimately, that every elevated voice is one more small barrier against hatred, injustice, exploitation, and violence.

Even as social media makes it easier than ever to spread a message around the world, political censorship and violence have silenced those same messages just as quickly as they emerge. In the Middle East in particular, acts of violence and occupation limit the growth of society. Regardless of whether a powerful voice is silenced by censorship, prison, or even death, the end result is the same in that the more powerful take away the voices of the less powerful. With every platform that it builds, Majal has as its central mission the goal of empowerment against these forces. Our platforms are meant to be tools in the hands of those most vulnerable to silencing, and that is why we see our work as not just promoting musicians and news stories, but instead as contributing to the greater fight against injustice around the world.

One important value differentiates Majal from many other human rights platforms, particularly those geared towards the Middle East. When organizations operate under the assumption that they are the agents of change, that they are the true innovators at the service of “voiceless” people, then these platforms have less reason to be responsive and adaptable to the changing needs of the communities that they claim to serve. But Majal is different. For example, CrowdVoice is a constant work in progress – it has to be, because our world is as well. When CrowdVoice started in 2010, providing information in one place was a unique goal on its own, but only a few short years later, we had to adjust our goal because there was so much information that it was losing its meaning. Mideast Tunes has also changed (not just grown) according to the needs of our users. We’re adding “offline listening” because across the Middle East, people don’t have consistent access to Internet and 3G/4G data services. In its technological developments, MET strives to be as equally accessible to its users in the United States as users in Baghdad, so that the artists’ messages can come through to everyone who seeks them out.

As social movements redefine our societies and tech innovations redefine how we relate to our societies, Majal is important because it fits right in the intersection between these two dynamics. We pride ourselves on engaging in long-term, sustainable change that truly empowers our users, because they are the true innovators. There may be more to gain in a world of funders and donors by painting our users as victims, and our platforms as their saviors, but we know that’s not how it works. CrowdVoice and Mideast Tunes are two pieces of a bigger puzzle, and even Majal is not the whole picture. Ultimately, our work comes down to a grand vision where no one is punished for speaking their voice, and their true creativity is allowed to shine.

By Esra'a Al Shafei, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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