Inspiring, empowering and fighting for a better world.
The Arab World is constantly transforming, moved by events happening both regionally and internationally.
Riding the wave of these changes are people who have taken it upon themselves to seek opportunities and make a difference in their respective countries.
At StepFeed, we come across a multitude of stories written by such people – activists – campaigning to bring about political or social reform.
With a heartfelt, personal responsibility to the 22 Arabic-speaking countries of the Arab League, their actions have gained local and global attention.
Our editorial team has collectively chosen 20 champions from an inspiring list.
By celebrating their work, our hope is to inspire and empower anyone with an idea, to fight for a better life for their people!
May we present StepFeed’s Top 20 Activists for 2017.
1. Mohammed Qraiqae (Palestine)
He has been called the “Picasso of Palestine” – but the teenager, who rejects this title, deserves it nonetheless. Mohammed Qraiqae uses art to channel the suffering and pain he experienced growing up under constant threat from Israeli soldiers and bombs in Gaza.
His art has been featured across the United States, and he’s already met with politicians and leaders from around the world, helping raise global awareness through art about the suffering of his people.
“I am [a] quiet boy and reflect my madness only in my paintings,” Qraiqae told Middle East Eye in 2016.
Taking up drawing at the tender age of 5, Qraiqae pursued his passion despite shelling, airstrikes, and the daily reality of living under Israeli occupation.
“I painted on my cousin’s face,” he said. “We would play with the children to get their minds off the war. We would tell them the bombs were fireworks.”
Now his artwork is getting the international recognition it deserves, exposing the world to the realities of occupation and the struggle to resist.
2. Ms Saffaa (Saudi Arabia)
In 2012, a Saudi artist who goes by the name Ms Saffaa moved to Sydney to pursue a PhD with a Saudi government scholarship.
But there was a catch: she needed to live with a “male guardian” who would supervise her during the course of her stay.
“The government asked me a few times to prove that my male guardian was with me. At the time I was, I think, 31 or 32, and I found it humiliating, dehumanizing in many ways,” said Ms Saffaa in an interview with PBS.
It was the “moment that kind of shaped” her career. She decided to create art that centered on male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.
Her message? “I am my own guardian.”
Saffaa’s work has reached the masses since.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Sarah Leah Whitson even dressed up in Saffaa’s #IAmMyOwnGuardian t-shirt in solidarity with Saudi women.
3. Wael Ghonim (Egypt)
Known as the “keyboard freedom fighter,” Wael Ghonim is an Egyptian internet activist and computer engineer.
Ghonim is considered a symbol of Egypt’s technology-driven democracy movement.
He was one of the organizers of a social media campaign that played a vital role in spurring mass demonstrations against the Hosni Mubarak regime. In 2011, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In that same year, he was also named one of Time 100’s most influential people and went on to receive the JFK Profile in Courage Award.
Ghonim is the founder of “Tahrir Academy”, a nonprofit online knowledge sharing platform for Arab youth, and a co-founder of Parlio, a new media platform for public conversations that rewards civility.
4. Lara Abdallat (Jordan)
This beauty queen turned hacker is the definition of badass. Lara Abdallat was Miss Jordan in 2010 and the first runner-up for Miss Arab 2011, but since then, her life has taken a drastic turn.
She now works with Ghost Security, a hacktivist group that has even been linked to Anonymous. And what exactly does she do? She explores the Dark Web for activity by terrorist groups like ISIS.
Abdallat told MIC in 2015 that she got sick of seeing all the innocent people dying, which motivated her to try and make an impact.
“We’re locating a lot of the Islamic State’s websites and Facebook or Twitter [accounts] or blogs. We can locate and target [them], and we work on closing them down because they share terroristic information,” she said. “It’s about saving lives.”
Beyond locating and taking down Daech’s (Arabic acronym for ISIS) social media accounts, Abdallat’s work leads to the actual arrest of terrorists. Abdallat has talked about specific planned attacks that were thwarted by Ghost Security’s efforts, including one in New York City and one in Tunisia.
And her activism also reaches beyond the inter-webs.
“I’m always interested in helping underprivileged families. And I’m active in saving animals, especially the Canaan dogs, which are a rare breed that is facing extinction,” she told our sister site YallaFeed in March.
5. Dr. Omar Fattal (Lebanon)
As a co-founder and executive board member of the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH), Dr. Omar Fattal has been instrumental in raising awareness about the difficulties Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ community faces.
Through online activism, conferences and awareness campaigns, Dr. Fattal and LebMASH are working to address societal misconceptions and support members of the LGBTQ+ community who feel marginalized in Lebanon.
Earlier this year, LebMASH organized its first-ever LGBTQ+ health week with the theme: “Marginalization is bad for your health.” Dr. Fattal has emphasized that rhetoric opposing the LGBTQ+ has a serious negative impact on the lives of individuals.
“Any rhetoric that fosters the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness or that it needs to be cured; views that have been abandoned by modern medicine a long time ago and by the World Health Organization as well as the Lebanese official psychiatric and psychological associations, only contribute to further stigmatization and marginalization of LGBT people, putting individuals at higher risk for HIV, mental health issues, and lack of health care services,” Dr. Fattal told StepFeed in March.
“It is therefore everyone’s responsibility to put an end to this negative rhetoric in order to protect the health of LGBT people,” he said.
In addition to his work with LebMASH, Dr. Fattal, who is a board certified psychiatrist, has launched an online service called Doctor Nafsi with his colleague Dr. Lama Bazzi. The site allows individuals seeking psychiatric guidance to do so discreetly, which is of extreme importance in a region where so much stigma continues to surround psychiatric care.
6. Dr. AlAnoud Al Sharekh (Kuwait)
Dr. AlAnoud Al Sharekh is an outspoken advocate for women and minority rights in Kuwait.
The researcher and academic focuses her studies on “youth and gender demographics, GCC security, bi-cultural trends and her special area of interest: Arab Feminist Theory.”
Al Sharekh founded ‘Abolish 153,’ a campaign to fight ‘honor killing’ legislation in Kuwait, and continues to be heavily involved with many non-profit organizations and civic society groups in the country.
She holds a BA from King’s College, London, and a Master’s and PhD from the SOAS, University of London.
Serving as a gender politics consultant for UNIFEM, Freedom House, and the UNDP, Al Sharekh uses every platform available to her to help facilitate public discussion about pivotal issues facing Arab society.
She also lectures in institutions across the region and abroad, and has published numerous books in her areas of research.
“Her previous posts include Senior Fellow for Regional Politics at the International Institute of Strategic Studies and Senior Political Analyst at the Kuwait National Security Bureau and Consultant Researcher at the Supreme Council for Development and Planning in Kuwait.”
In 2016, Al Sharekh was awarded a knighthood by the French Government (National Order of Merit) for her work, and promoting women’s rights in the region.
7. Laila Hzaineh (Jordan)
At just 19, she’s fighting on behalf of women in the Arab world, and if you’re not familiar with the name Laila Hzaineh, you better listen up.
The Jordanian-Palestinian feminist has been challenging societal norms in the Arab world, with the power of social media – specifically video.
As a video blogger, Hzaineh courageously tackles issues women in the region often find hard to confront, including sexism, harassment, and the unspoken truth about domestic violence.
Hzaineh has spoken out against virginity tests, sexual harassment, and domestic violence in the Arab world through a number of videos on Facebook.
Her most recent video blog (at the time of writing) is a response to one man’s post in which he compares women to cars, refers to them as being “cheap” and calls them out for wearing revealing clothing.
She basically eviscerated him.
8. Rashid Al Kuwari (Qatar)
Al Kuwari is a Qatari cartoonist, artist and activist whose work highlights important issues in Qatar and the Arab world.
Using his talent, Al Kuwari creates artwork and campaigns that engage Qatari youth on issues including road safety.
In recent years he has been giving animation workshops to young people in the emirate and encouraging them to express their ideas through the medium.
In addition to being a daily cartoonist at Qatar’s AlRaya newspaper, Al Kuwari is the co-founder of Qartoon, a website that’s all about animation.
9. Jamila Hammami (Tunisia)
Tunisian-American Jamila Hammami is the founder and Executive Director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project.
She is currently on the advisory board of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP), a project of United We Dream (UWD). With her work, Hammami has successfully lobbied for many trans detainees to get medical care in detention.
Hammami is a survivor of police brutality and the carceral system herself.
In 2015, she was forcefully thrown out of the Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel where she was protesting then-candidate U.S. President Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“We have a room in the hotel so we have a right to be here,” Hammami shot back, according to NY1. “But those guards pushed us down several flights of stairs.”
10. Ahmed M. Badr (Iraq)
Ahmed M. Badr is a former Iraqi refugee who’s gone on to become a global voice.
Born in Baghdad, Badr was forced to flee his home country in the wake of the 2003 war, seeking refuge in Syria.
In 2008, Badr and his family relocated to the United States where he has become a published writer and poet.
His work appears in The Huffington Post, and many others.
Through his work, Badr explores the intersection of “creativity, the refugee experience, and youth empowerment.”
11. Nadyn Jouny (Lebanon)
As one of the founders of the “You Stink” activist movement, Lebanese freelance journalist Nadyn Jouny has been quite vocal and active in multiple “call for reform” campaigns in Lebanon.
“We are the future of this country and the agents of change. If the youth didn’t do this, no one will do it,” Jouny said, according to NewsInfo.
Jouny’s role in the women’s rights scene in Lebanon – lobbying for change time and again – has not gone unnoticed.
After losing custody of her own son to her former husband, who physically abused her, she couldn’t let the same thing happen to another woman.
Last year, the case of Fatima Ali Hamzeh – a Lebanese woman who was jailed after refusing to give up custody of her son to her husband – sparked outrage in the community. Jouny was among those fighting on her behalf.
Jouny planned a protest alongside the organization Protecting Lebanese Women, inviting people to take to the streets.
They collectively called for the reformation of Lebanon’s personal status laws, which currently grant authority to religious courts over various personal matters including marriage, divorce, and child custody.
They also demanded the release of Fatima from jail, who was ultimately freed as a result.
12. Mary Nazzal-Batayneh (Jordan)
Nazzal is a 38-year-old lawyer and political activist, specialized in international human rights law. Her particular emphasis is on Palestinian legal rights.
She is the co-founder and chair of the Palestine Legal Aid Fund (PLAF), a non-profit entity designed to facilitate strategic legal action on behalf of Palestinian victims of human rights abuses.
In addition to her activism, the mother of 3 is also the founder and chair of Landmark Hotels.
In 2013, she was the only Jordanian selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Nazzal was also chosen as one of Forbes’ 200 Most Powerful Arab Women several times.
In 2015, SEP Jordan a brand of unique hand embroideries made by Palestinian refugee women in Jerash Camp, announced Nazzal-Batayneh as their brand ambassador and revealed their partnership with Landmark Hotels.
13. Ensaf Haidar (Saudi Arabia)
Ensaf Haidar fled Saudi Arabia in 2014, after her husband Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison.
She now resides in Canada where she monitors and continues to raise awareness about her husband’s situation. Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was convicted of “insulting Islam through electronic channels.”
In a book titled The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story, Haidar wrote an excruciating account about watching her husband receive his first 50 lashes.
“The men I had seen in the video might as well have put me in a square and flogged me. But worst of all was the feeling of helplessness. I sat on my sofa, wrapped my arms around my legs and wept,” she wrote, according to The Guardian.
As her husband’s case has become the rallying cry for greater freedom of speech within the kingdom, Haidar has led the movement. Badawi has received numerous awards for freedom of speech, which Haidar has claimed in his absentia, bringing attention to her husband’s case and rights abuses in the kingdom.
“Raif Badawi stood for his secular beliefs in a country that denied him liberty of speech, of movement and of free social rights. Raif Badawi is a humanitarian, a free thinker and a blogger,” Haidar wrote in an open-letter to U.S. President Donald Trump published by Newsweek. “His writing was about ideals of justice, human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
14. Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi (United Arab Emirates)
You may know Emirati Sultan Al Qassemi as the founder of Barjeel Art Foundation – a museum and cultural institution that serves as a resource for modern and contemporary Arab art … but that’s not all he does.
Qassemi has long been trying to bring the Arab art scene into light using the power of social media.
Qassemi is known for his outspoken nature when it comes to Emirati and Arab affairs, and his Twitter feed received global spotlight during the Arab Spring protests, ultimately putting him on Time magazine’s list of “140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011.”
For years, Qassemi has been championing the idea of universal internet access.
“I really believe that there could be no progress for humanity, for the youth, without universal internet access, and that internet access is no longer a luxury but a necessity,” Qassemi told StepFeed.
In 2014, he joined the Global Commission on Internet Governance.
He has also been an advocate for naturalization in the UAE, emphasizing that historically expats’ “skills and talents were essential during the formation of the federation,” he wrote in a piece on Medium.
These people “lived and contributed to the development of the UAE and formation of its national identity without ever becoming citizens,” he continued.
Qassemi has called on the UAE to take steps towards “controlled and systematic naturalization” time and again.
15. Lucien Bourjeily (Lebanon)
Lucien Bourjeily is a writer and director widely known for his work in immersive and interactive theater.
Over the past few years he has held numerous interactive plays and workshops all over the world.
Currently based in Lebanon, the activist has been a leading figure in anti-government and anti-corruption campaigns launched by the “You Stink,” movement.
During heated anti-government protests in 2015, Bourjeily was severely beaten and had to be hospitalized. Bourjeily is also an outspoken critic of film and media censorship in Lebanon.
His anti-censorship play titled “Will it pass or not?” was banned by the Lebanese general security but eventually created widespread backlash against the bureau.
For his activism against censorship, he was nominated for an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award, in 2014.
16. Janna Jihad Ayyad (Palestine)
She made headlines around the world last year as one of the youngest journalists in the world. At just 11 years old, Janna is already active in resisting and protesting the Israeli occupation.
“Not a lot of journalists are sending our message from Palestine to the world, so I thought, ‘why not send my message … and show them what is happening in my village’,” Janna told Al Jazeera.
The death of her cousin and uncle due to Israeli violence triggered her activism.
“My camera is my gun,” she said. “The camera is stronger than the gun … I can send my message to small people, and they can send it to others.”
17. Amira Yahyaoui (Tunisia)
Tunisian blogger and political activist Amira Yahyaoui is best known for her role in the anti-censorship and freedom of speech movement.
The 32-year-old founded the Tunisian organization Al Bawsala, a public policy and accountability NGO working to promote human rights and good governance in Tunisia.
The organization monitors the work of the Tunisian Parliament, the Constitutional Assembly, and Tunisian city halls and then uses technology to make information accessible to citizens.
When she was a teenager, Yahyaoui was banned from her homeland for her activism and fled to Paris where she remained stateless for several years.
She later returned to Tunisia after the revolution in 2011, to work on the transition and writing of the Tunisian constitution.
For her incredible work, she has been given a number of awards including the Global Trailblazers Award during the 2012 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards.
Yahyaoui became a Meredith Greeberg Yale World Fellow in 2014 and was awarded the conflict prevention prize by the Fondation Chirac.
18. Linda Sarsour (Palestinian-American)
Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour is as outspoken as one can get.
She is a recipient of the “Champions of Change” award, given to her by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Earlier this year, Sarsour was one of the leading people behind the Women’s March, which saw over 1 million people walk the streets of their cities in solidarity with women. The march was described as the largest demonstration against the administration in American history.
“I stand here before you unapologetically Muslim-American. Unapologetically Palestinian-American. Unapologetically from Brooklyn, New York,” she said during her speech at the Washington march.
But, that’s not all Sarsour is doing.
Sarsour helped end the NYPD’s practice of “spying on Muslim American citizens,” a secretive program that was implemented following the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Sarsour also made it possible for Muslim kids to celebrate two holy holidays in New York. Thanks to her efforts, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools will close to celebrate Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha.
19. Tawakkol Karman (Yemen)
Known as a powerful advocate for women’s participation in peace building and human rights in Yemen, Karman received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. This made her the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman and the second Muslim woman to ever win the prize.
Karman is a journalist and human rights activist. She founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, an organization that advocates for rights and freedoms, while providing media skills to journalists.
“I’m so happy with the news of this prize and I dedicate it to all the martyrs and wounded of the Arab Spring… in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria and to all the free people who are fighting for their rights and freedoms,” she told the BBC in 2011.
Since receiving the Nobel Prize, Karman has continued to support journalists – particularly women – and continued to rally against government corruption in her country.
20. Mona Seif (Egypt)
Mona Seif is one name that rose to prominence in Egypt – especially after her active role in the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Her active role in social media campaigns truly left a mark on Egyptians as she live-streamed the Tahrir Square protests, tweeted updates from the streets day-in-day-out, and talked to people who took part.
“I remember that we had no communication back then — they shut down all the telephone calls and internet, so I had to run out of Tahrir Square and go out where I have access to the internet to send this to our friends and my brother so they could send it out,” Seif said in an interview with Electronic Intifada.
And that’s not even Seif’s day job.
The 31-year-old is a biologist, investigating the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, and a human rights activist all in one. Seif was “born into the fight, literally,” CNN once wrote.
Seif comes from a well-known family of human rights activists.
Her brother Alaa Abd El Fattah – a blogger, software developer and the founder of the Egyptian blog aggregator site Manalaa – recently grabbed the world’s attention after he penned a moving letter from his prison cell back in March, marking his third year behind bars.