How an Afghan business woman and an Egyptian actor are shifting society

We traveled to the Oslo Freedom Forum to meet with activists, journalists, lawyers and technologists courageously fighting for freedom in diverse communities around the world. “Internet Without Borders” is a four-part video series exploring how technology is being used to defend human rights.

Roya Mahboob is on a mission to change the patriarchal society of Afghanistan by giving young women access to the same opportunity that freed her — an education. In a conservative culture where women have historically had very few rights, Roya’s work to bring education and access to information is helping to shift the balance of power.

Omar Sharif, Jr. is fighting his own struggle against a culture in his native Egypt that remains outwardly hostile to the LGBT community. During the Arab Spring in 2012, Omar made a brave choice in a tenuous political climate by becoming the first publicly gay figure in the region. Four years later, he’s still among the only ones. Despite threats of violence that discourage him from returning home, Omar remains committed to supporting the LGBT community. That community faces threats from the government and from more conservative institutions, but Omar isn’t deterred — he’s using the same media and entertainment channels that gave him a voice to give a voice to the millions of LGBT individuals living hidden lives throughout the Middle East.

Roya Mahboob at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum

Roya and Omar grew up believing their futures were fixed. Roya came of age in country where just 3% of girls went to school and Omar in a society where homosexuality can be punishable as a crime. But their lives changed dramatically while they were teenagers. Roya and Omar defied the societal norms that urged them to be quiet and speak up for the communities they represent at a remarkably young age. They also discovered that technology can change more than their own lives — it can change a nation.

For Roya, it was at an internet cafe. When the first internet cafe opened in her hometown of Herat, a mid-size industrial city in Western Afghanistan, in 2003, Roya was exhilarated. She discovered for the first time that she could have a voice outside of the four walls of her family’s home, and she could choose what she wanted to learn just by searching. In Afghanistan, a country where the Taliban forbade women from attending school or working, Roya found another way to empower young women to learn for themselves. She’s using her knowledge of technology to help train the next generation of girls to be expert coders, social media managers and entrepreneurs. These skills are helping women gain independence, self-confidence and, hopefully, more equal footing in society.

For Omar, his life changed when he discovered international media. After watching an episode of Will & Grace, he learned for the first time that gay communities could thrive openly in society. It was a stark contrast from life in Egypt, where LGBT Egyptians were entirely absent from public life.

Omar Sharif at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum

Omar has a plan to bring the LGBT community out from the shadows. In a country where only 2% of the population believes society should accept homosexuality, he’s working to ensure that Egyptian media reflects a more diverse set of characters. Omar wants the media that reaches the televisions and smartphones of Egyptians to reflect not only the diversity of Egypt, but also the broader international population. Omar remains optimistic that as more Egyptians come online, they’ll have more opportunities to interact with the LGBT community, which will gradually move Egyptian society to a more tolerant position.

Roya and Omar are the first to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. Their proposals might seem modest. They face incredible adversity at home. And yet, they both remain committed to the power of technology to transform the lives of others. For Roya and Omar, the future of their countries and their communities are at stake and the opportunity to make a difference has never been so great.

Help us tackle some of the toughest challenges of our time. Sign up to hear when we launch new projects.

This article was written by Jamie Albers

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.