At the age of 20, Bahraini university student Esra'a Al Shafei sure has a lot of chores to juggle. And it isn't classwork that is taking her time and sapping her energy.
As a cyber-activist, Al Shafei's interests range from campaigning to free jailed bloggers to highlighting atrocities being committed against women and migrant workers in the Middle East. She is also active in promoting and fostering inter-faith relations in a bid to create a better tomorrow for our future generations. Despite fears of repercussions, her sight is fixed on achieving her goals and furthering her agenda, working relentlessly day and night behind a screen and tapping away at that keyboard to achieve her goals and make the world a better place.
What makes her tick? Why is she so involved in such causes and what does she hope to get out of it? To answer those questions and gain an insight into the mind and heart of an extremely brave woman, read on.
1. When did you start blogging and what got you interested in cyber activism?
I started blogging in May of 2006. I was interested because the power of blogging in our societies was very noticeable. However, I knew I had to do something with this phenomenon. What was happening wasn't enough. There were advantages, which included how much blogging connected people from all over the world, but the disadvantages include the fact that blogs mostly attract like-minded individuals which actually keeps dividing people rather than bringing them together. So I started a group blog instead, and I invited Kurds, Arabs, Iranians, and Israelis to start working for it – not just through blogging but through networking and campaigning together. We have almost nothing in common, I even see differences between me and fellow Arabs, but that's why I'm reminded of the fact that what I'm doing is important. Despite our huge differences we stick together and consider each other friends and that's my idea of a successful society – tolerance, constructive dialogue and understanding.
2. How many websites do you manage? What are they? What do you hope to achieve through them? What other plans do you have in store for the future?
Lalith, my partner in these projects, helps me manage various websites, and we help many others with their websites. I operate all of the following websites:
And I help others get their own domains, hosting, and designs. We target those who need our help, and are unable to really get it. We have helped people in Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, and we never turned down an offer. When people want help, we do it, and we do it quickly and efficiently.
3. Is this a one-woman show or are there others supporting you? Is it easy to recruit and maintain volunteers? Is there any financial support coming your way?
This is a two-person show, I'm in charge of content management and the ideas, and my friend Lalith, who runs lazybeelab, is in charge of design and technical support. He co-owns MidEast Youth and our many networks. I wouldn't have come this far without his much needed help, this is why I put him in charge of executive decisions regarding the site as well. However there are many others who give us support and encouragement, and without our writers at MidEast Youth we wouldn't be able to achieve a lot. We have friends who help us with marketing and PR, and others who help us with proposals and advice. It's a tightly knit team. We help each other to make things work.
We have a lot of goals for the future, and I'm sure if we keep this consistent effort up, we'll achieve so much that we will serve as one of the biggest cyber networks in the Middle East. Though I also want to achieve these things on a ground-level. These websites are a start, not a solution. It helps us keep people hopeful and inspired.
No one supports us financially, we support ourselves. It's not expensive to maintain all these things because we don't pay anyone to do anything for us, like site design or advertising or sponsorship. We work hard on doing everything ourselves. Our shop helps us create the money we need to buy other domains for other projects.
4. Are your activities restricted to cyber-activism or have you been active on the ground? What are the projects/campaigns you took part in?
I attend a lot of conferences where I meet people who need help, and often I help them through setting up their websites or getting them domains and hosting. The ideas are there, but most of the time young people are confused as to how to start, and I often give them advice on how to do that. I also occasionally help organize activities on the ground. My next project is helping my communication professor organize a seminar in Switzerland that brings together youth activists and peace journalists in the Middle East. We build a bridge between these two. A lot of people are unaware of the good things that are being achieved in the Middle East, and I consider MidEast Youth to be one of them. We have several amazing peace activists on our site, and this includes Leah from Israel who reports things that we would never otherwise hear about.
5. How easy or difficult it is for a young woman from an Arab Gulf background to become an activist? Do you enjoy support from your family and surrounding environment?
It's pretty difficult. I try to stay away from local politics for my own safety. I'm very much involved though. I get more warnings than support, to be honest. It's very discouraging, but I don't give up. This is my passion, and if the warnings are true then I accept any consequences that come with this. People need to get and stay involved, and I don't see myself giving up any time soon. Sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and do what you have to do to achieve change in your region, and if risking your life is a risk then so be it.
6. What advice would you give to people who feel strongly about certain issues and want to campaign for or against them?
DO SOMETHING! That's my advice. So many people have opinions and they say “this is so wrong” or “this has to be heard” yet a lot of them aren't doing anything about it. Why not? When I feel strongly about something, I only have one thought going through my mind: “Do something about it!” and I do. When my friend Kareem was imprisoned, I started a campaign within minutes of this news. It is now a widely visited website with thousands of supporters worldwide and we formed our own coalition as well as organize worldwide rallies. When I lead the first protest for Kareem, it included only 3 people. This inspired others in the U.S to do something, and weeks later, the protest was worldwide and took place in many countries, including Paris, Rome, Sweden, London, and several states in the U.S. Our next worldwide protest will take place on the 27th of April. I think it will be just as successful.
The usual excuse is, “I don't have time.” I'm a full time student with a double major. Do they think I have time? I don't, but I make time. I use up every free second I have to work on these things. That's how things get possible. You risk things, and sometimes that includes comfort. The reason why I love doing this is because I know it's making change, and I know it's inspiring many others to take action. I'm a nobody, I'm an average person with the same daily routine as any other college student. The only reason why I achieved a lot is because I believed in myself, I started so small and am now going big. Anyone is capable of this, it's just a matter of whether or not you give up, and most do.
7. Are any of the projects you are involved in rewarding in any way? Do you have any success stories you would like to share with us?
I guess I just want to repeat the fact that all of this started from absolutely nothing. No money, no contacts, no help, and in fact, a lot of people ignored us and considered us “kids” who didn't know what they're doing. I'd like to see what they think about us starting one of the most powerful campaigns for a blogger in the world. We started out with a website, now it's a worldwide effort to support my imprisoned friend. Furthermore, our MidEast Youth network is now one of the most unique in the region. It's inspiring a lot of young people to get involved and take proper action. And not just political action, but we encourage a lot of artists and musicians to keep working because their works aren't really appreciated in our societies. So we help them promote their work. We just launched a gallery feature on our website that helps get photographers and artists in the region known.
My advice for everyone is this:
Don't wait for change, be the change. No one else is going to do any of this but you. Rely on yourself and your own abilities and when criticized, aim to prove them wrong. Don't give up. Ask for help when needed but if no one helps, do it anyways! And when people see how charged and active you are, they will be the ones asking for your help. Writers want to join without an invitation, artists want to get involved, musicians want to promote their work with us, people are listening. I'm very proud of my team at MidEast Youth who are helping me make things possible, and am especially thankful to my friend Lalith from Lazy Bee for taking care of the technical work which is by far the most important aspect of these projects.
Thanks again for this interview.