Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story

  • By Ensaf Haidar with Andrea C. Hoffmann
  • Other Press
  • 256 pp.

A harrowing account of the price of freedom in Saudi Arabia.

In a world few of us would recognize, the only men Ensaf Haidar interacted with during her childhood in Saudi Arabia were her father and seven brothers. She wore a garment covering her entire body called an abaya and a full face veil called a niqab. She was driven to school and then immediately returned home. Her mother gave her cooking lessons to prepare her for an eventual arranged marriage.

In this memoir, Ensaf recounts the day a new mobile phone opened up a very different way of life. A man called — a man telling her stories and jokes and offering her a glimpse of the world outside her bedroom. They began talking multiple times a day, met in secret, and fell in love. Ensaf risked denunciation from her family, but she was determined to marry this man, no matter the cost.

In all good romantic tales, the handsome stranger comes bearing gifts, and Raif Badawi is no exception. The romantic lead is handsome and smart, but he has also veered off the normal trajectory because of his interests in free speech and political change in a land where both are capital offenses. Raif is a blogger, spreading new ideas and highlighting the cultural repression he sees every day. Instead of flowers and fairy tales, their love story is marked by unbelievable hardship and tragedy.

Ensaf and Raif married in 2001, after being kept apart by her parents and fighting hard to be together. They have three children and become financially secure. That is, until Raif starts to vocalize his dissent against the government of Saudi Arabia and his lack of personal freedom, and launches an institute to help women find work. He is targeted by death threats and shunned by the government. His passport is revoked. Eventually, he is called in for questioning and never released.

Ensaf, fearing for her life, takes their children to Canada, where they face a different language, a shocking climate, and a new way of life. She supports her kids and becomes her husband’s lifeline. She starts working publicly to free him, speaking on TV and appearing at rallies. Not the life of a typical Saudi woman.

In 2012, Raif was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for his outspoken dissent. That decision was appealed in 2013, and his punishment was increased to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison, a virtual death sentence. He was publicly whipped, getting his first 50 lashes on January 9, 2015. Thanks to an international outcry, the remaining lashes have been suspended. There are now serious concerns about Raif’s health.

In this story, cultural differences are apparent, but the experiences are universal. The most glaring example of this is the truth that Raif was an adulterer, hurting his wife countless times with lies and cheating. Ensaf struggled to respond to his infidelity in multiple ways, including creating a social life without him and shutting him out of her world. (Ensaf is open about this injustice; she excused the behavior and rationalized it because it led to an eventual transformation of Raif’s views on women.)

At first, Ensaf did not tell her children about their father’s sentence. Instead, she lied to protect them, claiming their father was just working and would join them any day. I understand her fear, but the lying was difficult to read. She does eventually tell them the truth, admitting her own mistake and apologizing for the delay. The children now participate in rallies in support of their father.

With no end in sight to the family’s separation and Raif’s imprisonment, I, like Ensaf, check the news for updates on Raif’s status and lament a world where free speech is punishable by death. I also celebrate the fact that a family can stand up for so much and take courage that the free world is standing with them.

JR Scrafford is a senior review editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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