Building Communities for the Marginalized

A spotlight on Majal, a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship host organization

For those seeking fresh, incisive music from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, Mideast Tunes is a treasure trove. Browsing the site’s artists is like thumbing through a bin of eclectic records: You’ll find bouncy pop from Lebanon, politically-charged hip hop from Palestine, and haunting ballads from Yemen.

For LGBTQ individuals in the MENA region seeking a safe and supportive space, Ahwaa can be a sorely-needed refuge. The online platform connects some 7,800 users, providing both community and anonymity.

At first, these two platforms — Mideast Tunes and Ahwaa — seem to have little in common. But both are creations of Majal, the 11-year-old, MENA-based nonprofit devoted to freedom of expression and social justice.

As a result, Mideast Tunes and Ahwaa don’t operate like many other online platforms. Personal data isn’t seized and commodified; profit isn’t prioritized over privacy. Social good is the final goal.

“Mideast Tunes is a platform showcasing underground musicians who use music as a tool for social change,” explains Esra’a Al-Shafei, the Bahraini human rights activist who founded Majal. “The platform reinforces the idea of music as more than just a creative outlet, but as a social tool that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities.”

The platform is growing: the site now features podcasts and films, and recently released a documentary about Palestine’s indie music scene. And a new feature — an interactive map — allows users to easily browse new artists by geography.

Mideast Tunes new interactive map feature

Ahwaa is expanding, too. “We’re currently in the process of completely revamping the platform — to make it stronger, more engaging, more interactive and secure,” Al-Shafei says. The refreshed site will launch in early 2018.

Ahwaa uses novel features to connect community members while also preserving their privacy. Users engage with one another using pseudonyms and animated avatars. Acts of goodwill and support unlock the site’s various features for users, creating a protected, trustworthy place.

Ahwaa’s revamp comes at a critical time. “In the Arab world, we live in countries where LGBTQ individuals are severely underrepresented as a community and face not only systematic oppression, but also discrimination, marginalization, and persecution,” Al-Shafei says. “The region lacked a common platform through which LGBTQ youth could connect in a highly engaging environment to share their thoughts, fears, and concerns regarding their sexuality and identity.”

Recently, Majal has partnered with some like-minded people and organizations. As a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship host organization, Majal hosts activists or coders for a 10-month period. In 2017, the Mexico-based engineer and Mozilla Fellow Orlando Del Aguila is embedded at Majal to work on Ahwaa and Mideast Tunes.

Del Aguila takes an open-source approach, ensuring the site can be adopted by other communities around the world. (It’s already been replicated in Bulgaria.)

Del Aguila notes that when you’re serving underrepresented communities, a seemingly minor feature or update can have an outsized effect. “A small contribution to the product can have a huge impact,” he notes.

Says Al-Shafei: “It’s great to be able to work with a fellow who has contributed precious and necessary development resources to our projects.”