Last month, Esra'a Al Shafei, an activist and serial digital democracy entrepreneur in Bahrain, launched Ahwaa — an ambitious new portal for LGBTQ issues, resources and advocacy in the Middle East, which provides a safe haven for a community consistently censored and frequently threatened in a culture with some of the world's most rigid gender norms. Ahwaa ("passions" in Arabic) builds on Al Shafei's acclaimed umbrella project, Mideast Youth — an indigenous, grassroots digital network harnessing the new media to fuel a movement against oppression in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ahwaa joins a number of notable human rights and culture projects under Mideast Youth, including CrowdVoice.org, a user-powered service for tracking voices of protest around the world; Migrant Rights, which raises awareness about the plight of migrant workers in the Middle East; and Mideast Tunes, which spotlights emerging musicians from the Middle East and North Africa.
I sat down with Al Shafei to talk about the inspiration behind Ahwaa, the project's goals and the challenges of openly discussing private issues in a culture of extreme censorship.
Maria Popova: How have social platforms and internet access changed the human rights dialogue in the Middle East, particularly as it applies to LGBTQ rights?
Esra'a Al Shafei: There is nothing more frustrating than witnessing so many injustices and not being able to expose or fight against it. Access to the internet completely changed that, as it became the gateway to freedom of speech, particularly around taboo topics that face widespread censorship, even online. But there have always been ways to bypass the censorship and keep highlighting the many abuses that often go unnoticed or unpunished, especially those relating to the LGBTQ communities. Social platforms transformed the way people communicate about these issues, and even though there is still so much homophobia and abusive bigotry online that merely echo hateful propaganda, at least we have a big opportunity now to actually refute these claims and start bigger conversations around those issues.
Popova: What inspired AHWAA and where do you hope it will go?
Al Shafei: We actually had originally planned to create an advocacy campaign, but when we approached several LGBTQ rights activists in the region, they had noted that there would be a big and missing component which no other organization has been working on in the way that this group of activists had envisioned it. They wanted an interactive, engaging community safe from prejudice and abuse, and they offered many compelling arguments for why we should create it. The idea was to provide a simple but powerful platform that serves as a support network for not just the LGBTQ community but also individuals who want to learn more by interacting with people who have first-hand experiences of the challenges involved. We wanted to focus on stories and the human element, so that people who previously found themselves stifled in this position have a strong community to rely on. The platform is just the beginning for us, and we are already working on introducing new features and making massive improvements. We feel that if we focused first on creating a strong, outspoken community then advocacy would be a natural step forward.
Popova: How do you reconcile the need for privacy on the site, given the negative and often physically threatening cultural reactions to the LGBTQ community, with the need to explore deeply personal topics and engage with others as a community?
Al Shafei: This was the biggest challenge for us when creating the site. We encourage anonymity and introduced fun avatars that people can associate their profiles with, in order to prevent any real photos from being published on the site. A user also has the option of not signing up and of participating anonymously, or hiding their user name when posting a topic. The site also includes a disclaimer with each action taken to serve as a constant reminder for the user not to share any information that might reveal their identity. Apart from this, we use a point system that allows users to graduate to other levels that they can only unlock if they have a specific number of points. A user gets points whenever someone marks their comment as helpful. This ensures that those in other levels have more privacy and can get more comfortable discussing certain issues amongst other users that have earned the trust of the community. Of course, we continue to emphasize that one can never be too secure, so we still encourage users to take the necessary precautions. The site is also heavily moderated to ensure that the conversations are within these limits and that no one is being outed.
Popova: Currently, Ahwaa is very clearly positioned as a comprehensive, thoughtful resource for just about any LGBTQ question. Do you ever worry that it might eventually become a kind of online dating site, as users begin to interact with one another, and how do you prevent that? Or would this actually be welcome down the line?
Al Shafei: We have been very pleased so far with the quality of the content. A lot of people have come forward with their questions, advice, concerns, challenges, experiences and general stories. While lurking through the site, any new visitor is already aware of the kind of content and the standards that the community has which makes it clear that this isn't meant to serve as a dating site. Of course, there is also a private messaging element which we don't control. I don't doubt that some users may wish to take their connections further into the real world like they already do on various social platforms. We don't control the users in any way to decide what they can and can't discuss privately. If they found someone on the site that they have been interacting with for a long time, an individual they can fully trust and connect with beyond the site, that's great. But our mission is to serve as a thoughtful resource and not a site where people come purely to find relationships. As in many situations there are far more challenges to overcome before reaching that stage and that's the segmented audience that we are targeting.
Popova: What has been the most surprising insight for you in Ahwaa's reception, both from the LGBTQ community and the outside world?
Al Shafei: The reception was overwhelmingly positive, which came as a shocker for us. We had a few conservative members in the Mideast Youth community that had a very negative reaction, but otherwise the site was very well received especially within the LGBTQ community. Beyond the LGBTQ community, many people in the region were interested in how the site was built, so they started using it out of curiosity and unexpectedly started bonding with the members and really getting into the stories and trying to be helpful by sharing their own comments or advice. We also started getting submissions from people on how they reacted to a queer sibling, or how they came out to their siblings, and just really great content that we haven't expected at such an early stage. Our focus now is just to continue building and growing the platform and its membership, so that it can serve as a helpful resource for everyone involved.
Popova: Has the popular uprising and subsequent crackdown that took place late last winter in your country, Bahrain, affected participation or content in Ahwaa?
Al Shafei: We actually launched Ahwaa in April for strategic reasons. It was safer for us because the repression was too focused on political dissent and we wanted Ahwaa to escape the attention of regional governments. There's a topic on Ahwaa about this too. People in the region are generally optimistic about what these movements mean for freedom and equality, but we also don't want to be naive to assume that gay rights are achievable anytime soon. Deep societal changes don't happen overnight, and in the meantime LGBT persons in the region are trying to find support from fellow queers and straight allies. And this is what Ahwaa is all about.