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WE, WHO ARE FORTUNATE ENOUGH to live in democracies, accept freedom of speech and the civil liberties that we enjoy as our natural and inherent rights. But we are lucky: these rights are, in fact, privileges.

51p6zMsyMPL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Raif Badawi: The Voice of Freedom, Ensaf Haidar’s moving love letter to her activist husband, brings this point home. Badawi, an activist and founder of the website Free Saudi Liberals, is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on several charges, including insulting Islam and apostasy, his sentence 10 years in prison, a fine and 1,000 lashes, the first 50 of which have been administered already.

The book, which Haidar wrote with Andrea C. Hoffman, could be read as a straightforward love story. Certainly the strength of the Badawis’ love for each other is made clear from the moment the couple ‘met’, via a misdialled phone call made to a mobile that Haidar wasn’t even meant to have, through their illicit courtship in a country in which ‘too much freedom is seen as a risk’, their subsequent marriage, which took place despite family opposition, to Badawi’s persecution and imprisonment and Haidar’s fight, while in exile in Canada, for her husband’s release.

Raif Badawi, however, is much more than this – and not just because it highlights the injustices that the Badawis – and many people like them – have suffered, and the sacrifices that they as a family have had to make. What the book brings home, somewhat brutally perhaps, is that with freedom of speech comes great responsibility – and by that I mean about what we say and how we choose to say it. We must also accept that freedom of speech comes at a price – and that there may be consequences from voicing our words, our views, our opinions.

We live in a world in which most of us, at the press of a button, can get our views across to the masses via social media – Twitter, FB, instagram, YouTube, our blogs. While many of us use these forums to showcase opinions, debate issues we care about, highlight injustices – others equally use it to spread hate. And this is, regrettably, what Badawi’s own father, Mohammed Raif Badawi – did when he posted videos expressing his disapproval and dislike of his son and daughter’s behaviour on YouTube, videos that subsequently were taken up by groups pursuing other political, social and religious agendas and videos which, arguably, contributed to Badawi’s imprisonment and sentence.

In the book, Haidar is extremely honest about her relationship with her husband, particularly the difficulties that they faced as a young married couple in an extremely rigid society in which love marriages are not the norm. Seemingly, initially at least, as Badawi became more liberal in his views, this openness did not extend to his own wife.

In the course of the first two years of our marriage,’ Haidar writes, ‘our love lost the deep intimacy that had initially bound us together. We were living out the traditional Saudi Arabian gender roles. Except that I was the loser.’

Isolated from her family and friends, and aware of the increasing distance between them, Haidar made up her mind to change, to become more independent as a woman and to make herself more interesting to her husband. These changes brought the couple closer and also helped Haidar grow, possibly enabling her to develop the skills and strength that she would require to deal with the news of her husband’s imprisonment and the realities of being a single mother, living in exile, without any money or support system.

What shines through in this book is what an extraordinary woman Ensaf Haidar must be. Haidar has fought ceaselessly to free her husband, while bringing up three young children in a different culture, far away from her native land. And, it is largely due to Haidar, supported by a group of dedicated individuals and groups, such as Amnesty and English Pen, that Raif Badawi hasn’t been forgotten and is such a well-known figure globally. That Badawi’s friend, brother-in-law and lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, is also now in prison, his crime defending Badawi against the charge of apostasy, emphasizes, yet again, how completely unjust this situation is. It also brings home how important it is for us to help bring about change through our voices, our words, through the very freedom of expression that we enjoy and so often take for granted.

As I type, the words of activist Malala Yousafzai come to mind: ‘We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced …

‘[O]ne book, one pen can change the world.

I hope so.

I really hope so.

In fact, let’s make it so.


Raif Badawi: The Voice of Freedom – My Husband and Our Story by Ensaf Haidar and Andrea C. Hoffmann * 16 March 2016 * Publisher: Little, Brown * Paperback: £14.99 *



GIVEAWAY: The first person to contact us via our site, FB or Twitter will win a copy of Ensaf Haidar’s moving book.



On 23 March 2016 from 1–2pm, Little, Brown Book Group and English PEN are holding a special vigil in support of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi and his lawyer Waleed Abulkhair outside the Saudi Embassy in London. Please do join it if you can.

Activists are asked to meet at the Curzon Street entrance to the Embassy (note: the postal address of the Embassy is 30–32 Charles Street, Mayfair, London). You can also get involved through social media by using the hashtag #FreeRaif


Image and text credits: Cover courtesy Grace Vincent, publicity manager at Little, Brown. Quotation text: Copyright © 2015 by Ensaf Haidar and Andrea C. Hoffman; translation © 2016 Shaun Whiteside.


Also of interest:An Alaskan Epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore, a breathtaking debut’, ‘“Amethyst and flowers on the table”, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, a review‘.



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