Changing the Conversation


A quick note about this section

Three YouTube creators are working to destigmatize their culture and maybe even learn a thing or two about themselves in the process.

Written by
William Daubney Holmes

In 2016, YouTube started a program called Creators for Change. It’s made up of 11 ambassadors and 28 fellows chosen from all over the World. All of them are trying to use social media, and YouTube in particular, to change society. These creators all apply their creativity to speak out against racism, hate speech, and extremism. YouTube helps them with promotion to get more people to watch more of their videos. It “amplifies” the message. From India and Indonesia to the U.S., U.K., and the Middle East, all the creators use the power of video on the internet to shed light on some of the dark topics facing us. They confront social issues that are often seen as controversial, even taboo. They’re testing the boundaries of what is acceptable to audiences who are both hungry for debate, and sometimes girding for a fight. Frontier spoke to three of them who are all trying to shed light on their own experience of being a Muslim in a globally connected world.

Ezaldeen Aref is 22 years old and is one of the most popular YouTubers in Yemen, a country in the middle of a brutal war that has left much of the population without electricity, never mind internet access.

Aref isn’t even in Yemen now. He lives and makes his videos in Istanbul, where he goes to university, and in Berlin, where he spent time on an internship this summer.

About three years ago, he won a scholarship to study at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, and while there he says other students started asking him questions about how to study and get good grades. He figured it would be easier if he could address them all at once. So he started making videos and posting them to YouTube. Initially they focused on study tips and strategies for winning a scholarship. But he quickly moved on from that.

We are sometimes mixing religion with tradition … making women inferior to men is a tradition that we’ve been raised with, it’s not religion.

On March 8, 2016, Aref was sitting around with a few friends chatting. Aref and his male friends were jokingly wishing one another a happy International Women’s Day. A woman sitting with them took offence. She thought they were talking down to her, and asked why it should be embarrassing to be a woman.

The incident made Aref think about how women are treated in his home country. “In Yemen, some people would be ashamed to tell you their mother’s name. It’s also shameful for a woman to drive while there is a man in the car.”

So Aref made a video. Speaking in Arabic, he asked whether this was the right way to treat women. He was surprised to see people agreeing with him in the comments.

“I even approached the topic from a religious point of view. I said, ‘We are sometimes mixing religion with tradition. All these acts and making women inferior to men is a tradition that we’ve been raised with, and it’s not religion.”

He managed to get a debate going. Some of his subscribers took his view, saying, “We should also differentiate between traditions and religion and we shouldn’t mix them, and we shouldn’t carry on the, let’s say, ‘bad tradition,’ trying to justify them by saying that they are from religion.”

It’s a touchy subject for someone who is making videos in Arabic, and directing them at some of the most socially conservative countries in the world. Most of Aref’s 29,000 subscribers are in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and the Palestinian Territories. Only a small portion are in Yemen, where the war has forced most people of offline.

Across Yemen’s border to the east is Oman, a country facing a starkly different situation. Conservative yes, but far more stable, safe, and prosperous. Roughly 70% of Oman’s population has internet access. And while the ongoing conflict in Yemen regularly makes international news, Oman barely registers.

Earlier this year, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times praised Oman as a “boring, peaceful place” that has not suffered the fate of Yemen because the Sultan makes sure young people get an education.

The capital of Oman, Muscat, is where Shog Al Maskery lives. The 23-year-old has a following on YouTube of nearly 40,000 people, but no one knows what she looks like.

She never appears in her videos and she uses a drawing of herself for her avatar. It’s a level of anonymity that mirrors the relative obscurity of her country.

When Al Maskery began making videos for YouTube, she had no sense of boundaries. No real idea of what would be acceptable and what would cross the line. She started slow in her first year, asking people what they know about Oman in videos that weren’t all that emotional or controversial.

Why are you speaking English around Arabs? That’s the kind of conversation that people usually have … People think if you speak English it means you think you’re better than them.

Then she realized she could go much further. By her third season, she started asking questions of both men and women about the right age to marry. Then she made videos about death. “Like if they told you that you would die at any moment but they didn’t tell you what, when, or how, what would you do? And some of them got a little bit emotional in their heads, like wow. Because people don’t usually talk about death. It’s not a topic people like to discuss, right?”

The legendary ad man George Lois famously said, “People think that the ice is three inches thick and it’s two feet thick. And what I try to tell everybody is, ‘You got power in you to do more than you’re doing.’ Everything should be so ambitious.”

These YouTube creators have discovered this — that the ice is thicker than they thought.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh was born and raised in New Jersey, and started while in high school after becoming, as she says, “fed up with the misleading misconceptions surrounding Islam.”

But as a teenager, making a video and posting it on YouTube was still a leap for her. She didn’t have the courage to let the world see her first attempt.

“I still remember sitting in my high school bedroom in front of my wrap and headscarf, trying to do a hijab tutorial, and that video’s never seen the light of day, because I was just so insecure. I was so scared about putting myself out there.”

It took a while for her to get over it.

“People can see your vulnerabilities, people can see your expressions, people can hear you, and I think that brings a different level of intimacy. But that’s also what makes YouTube so potent and so effective as a tool for that type of communication.”

Her website, and her YouTube channel, became a way of escaping an isolated teenage existence. School was a place where she stood out because of her religion, the colour of her skin, the way she looked. She says she was bullied for it.

“For me, YouTube kind of seemed like that portal as well to the outside world, connecting with other people. I just wanted to feel accepted. I wanted to put myself out there. And obviously in high school, I didn’t have that confidence to put myself out there to gain that acceptance.”

For me, social media was always a need for survival. It’s how you can connect with people beyond the borders, beyond the boundaries, where you can honestly be the version of yourself that you want to be.

She discovered that the world online was far, far bigger than that of her of offline world in New Jersey.

“For me, social media was always a need for survival. Social media is how you can connect with people beyond the borders, beyond the boundaries, where you can honestly be the version of yourself that you want to be.”

Some of her videos shed light on topics that probably shouldn’t be in the shadows, but are.

“One of my most watched videos is when I secretly blogged my first Tinder date. It was just interesting for those that watched, because it was kind of like me being myself and just living my life, but for people from the outside, they were like, ‘Wait, Muslim women go on dates? Wait, Muslim women are on Tinder? Wait, Muslim women blog their dates?’ It was really mind blowing for some people. And I think that’s funny, because what is more universal for millennials than the horrible experiences we all share on Tinder, right? Trying to date in the millennial era.”

And yet, whatever the topic, Al-Khatahtbeh’s videos frequently attract hate comments. She says she tries to avoid reading them, while at the same time refuses to delete them. “I just leave them there, because I want people to see the reality of, ‘Well this is what it’s like being a Muslim woman on the internet.’ You can read it for yourselves. This is normal for us.”

“I think that when those Islamophobes and those racists are really getting pissed off, then you know that you’re doing the right thing. When we keep getting support amongst general audiences, allies or partners, I think that’s when we know it’s on the right track.”

Hate has become so obviously inescapable online. From the racist trolls of Twitter and the white supremacists who use social media with alarming effectiveness, along with the hordes of everyday bigotry, hate breeds and spreads in the blink of an eye.

It’s the latest topic Shog Al Maskery decided to tackle on her channel. This fall, in a series called “Contagious,” she confronted the issue of hate and how easily it spreads. Al Maskery created a fictional character similar to herself — a YouTube content creator. She uploads a video and the praise starts coming in. Then it switches to hate.

“And because of those hate comments, they stick in her head wherever she goes, and then she basically takes that negative energy from those hate comments.”

Al Maskery says she wanted to tackle these issues to show that it is possible for people to have different opinions and still be civil to one another.

She makes her videos exclusively in Arabic now. For a while she did some of them in English, and that attracted not hate, but strong criticism.

She discovered that some people saw the use of English as a snobbish slight against them.

“People who went through private schools would have better English and would speak English more fluently, but those who went to public school wouldn’t speak as good English. So there’s that — I don’t know how to call it but people think if you speak English it means you think you’re better than us, just because you’re speaking English.”

“And that’s the kind of conversation that people usually have, ‘Why are you speaking English around Arabs?’ Okay, if you’re speaking to a person who speaks English, that’s fine, but when it comes to us Arabs, ‘Why are you speaking English?’ So that’s usually a topic that even in our family we discuss sometimes.”

As for Ezaldeen Aref, his immediate family lives with him in Turkey now. They had to ee their home in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, because of the war. He doesn’t know when, or if, he’ll be going back.

The country is almost totally dysfunctional after years of armed conflict. Infrastructure has been destroyed on a grand scale, and the United Nations says Yemen is now on the brink of suffering the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history. By the end of 2017, it’s estimated a million people will have been infected. Widespread malnutrition is making the disease more deadly than it should be.

Aref has extended family still living there, and he stays in touch. “It’s not going well these days. There is inflation these days, prices are really high. It’s not even safe because of the air strikes that are still going on.”

And yet, Aref finds he is able to return to his studies and continue making videos.

His ambition, however, is not just to get more subscribers, but to develop what he calls an of fine community — what used to be called face-to-face relationships. The original social networks, where people physically meet to exchange ideas and learn from one another.

The idea for this came from a video in which he told his own story of spending a week with no social media. He had first put out a call for others to join him, and he says many did.

The video became one of his most popular, and it convinced him that as powerful as an online community can be, it isn’t enough.

William Daubney Holmes