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February 18 2019

Ensaf Haidar

by Charlotte Hays

On the day after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Paris satire magazine, that left eleven journalists dead, Ensaf Haidar had a telephone conversation with her husband, the imprisoned Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi,  that she will never forget.

As she recounts in her book, Raif Badawi, the Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story, Raif had not heard about the Paris attack, but he had his own news: he would be publicly flogged the next day. "It took me a moment to understand. 'Yes, Ensaf. The first 50 lashes. I’ll get them in front of the big mosque in Jeddah.'”

Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012. His blog, Saudi Free Liberals Forum, advocated for freedom of speech and a more secular society in which all aspects of life were not controlled by the Saudi religious authorities. Because of these positions, Badawi was charged with "insulting Islam through electronic channels." In 2014, Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes. Ensaf says he is being held in a small cell with five other prisoners.

The flogging in front of the Jeddah mosque received worldwide media attention. Reports of it often followed immediately upon reports of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The international media attention may be the reason that Saudi Arabia has not seen fit (at least so far) to inflict further floggings on Badawi. There are periodic scares that Raif's floggings will resume. From prison, Badawi has written a book, 1,000 Lashes Because I Say What I Think, blurbed by Salman Rushdie.  

A historical note: a few days after Badawi, now 35,  received his 50 lashes, a representative of the Saudi government walked in the march in Paris that drew leaders from all over the world to express solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. A Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who survived the attack, anguished over the bitter irony of the Saudi presence in Paris, while the government was holding Badawi in prison.

"I don't like to speak about Saudi Arabia," she tells IWF, "because I don't care about anything there, the only link is Raif. But let's talk about what happens in West from some crazy people who are trying to promote the [idea that] Sharia law is peaceful like [Women's March cofounder] Linda Sarsour and others! I'm against what is called niqab or Hijab because it's simply a form of slavery."

Women in the Middle East generally are not encouraged to take leadership roles. But the plight of her husband, whom she desperately wants to free, has turned Ensaf Haider into an internationally known activist. She is a small woman who sometimes addresses email correspondents as "dear," but has an enormous devotion  to her husband's  cause.

"I'm daily fighting for #FreeRaif," she tells IWF. "I'm traveling around the world to raise awareness of his case, I am doing thousands of interviews with international media, also I meet with some political leaders around the world who supported me. I ask all human beings to talk about Raif's case every time and everywhere."

Ensaf fled Saudi Arabia, with the couple's three children, after a fatwa was issued against Raif. She lived briefly in Egypt and then in Lebanon. In 2013, Canada granted Ensaf Haider asylum and citizenship. She and the three children now live in the city of Sherbrooke in Quebec. Ensaf is president of the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom, which advocates free speech and human rights in the Arab world. She speaks, travels, writes, and tweets on behalf of her husband and the cause of human rights. She leads a weekly protest on Raif's behalf during Jumu'ah, or Friday prayers. She learned French after arriving in Canada and is able to tweet in English.

Along with officials from the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, including Raif's lawyer, the internationally-recognized human rights attorney, Irwin Cotler, Ensaf was in Washington, D.C., this month to speak with elected officials on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. Senate called for Raif Badawi's release, citing him by name, in its resolution condemning the murder of Saudi activist and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The visit was a follow-up of sorts to the resolution. While in Washington, Ensaf and her colleagues from the Wallenberg Center, had scheduled meetings with Senators Marco Rubio, Dick Durbin, and Dianne Feinstein. She believes President Trump could be effective in the fight for Raif's release. "The U.S. president should help me to bring my hero husband  home." Ensaf says.

Although Ensaf and Raif are mostly seen in the light of their human rights activism, there is also a back story: an accidental courtship. "My story is a very strange one, but a beautiful one," she told an interviewer. "I knew Raif through a mistake, but it was the best mistake of my life."

Ensaf refuses to discuss society or politics in Saudi Arabia. "I don't like to speak about Saudi Arabia," she tells IWF, "because I don't care about anything there, the only link is Raif. But let's talk about what happens in West from some crazy people who are trying to promote the [idea that] Sharia law is peaceful like [Women's March cofounder] Linda Sarsour and others! I'm against what is called niqab or Hijab because it's simply a form of slavery. On behalf of all women who have suffered from Hijab and niqab, I'm against the Islamic campaigns called #HijabDay."

Indeed, on her first day as a Canadian citizen, Ensaf called for the burqa and niqab to be banned in government and other public places in Canada. "As a refugee in Quebec and Canada I have noticed the fast growth of Islamist groups loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Saudi clergy imposing the Burqa and enforcing Niqab on girls and women as political flags to mark jihadi territory," she said in a statement. She called the requirement to cover, which she maintains, along with many Muslim reformers, is not a requirement of Islam, "medieval misogyny" that "befits slavery, not humanity."

Unlike many who dismiss out of hand fears that activists such as Sarsour could make Sharia law acceptable in the U.S., Ensaf worries about just that. She was alarmed about reports that there were Muslim cars resembling police cars allegedly patrolling areas of New York. "After the Islamists have police officials, okay, what's the next step?" she recently tweeted. "Pushing Sharia law in US! Establish Sharia areas! This is an insult to democracy and to @NYPDChiefPatrol."

Middle Eastern women are not encouraged to take leadership roles--but Ensaf has become an internationally known activist. "I'm traveling around the world to raise awareness of his case, I am doing thousands of interviews with international media, also I meet with some political leaders around the world who supported me. I ask all human beings to talk about Raif's case every time and everywhere."

Although Ensaf and Raif are mostly seen in the light of their human rights activism, there is also a back story: an accidental courtship. "My story is a very strange one, but a beautiful one," she told an interviewer. "I knew Raif through a mistake, but it was the best mistake of my life."  

Raif dialed a wrong number on the telephone and, when Ensaf answered, the two began a conversation that would lead to marriage and activism. They were not allowed to meet in person, though they managed a brief encounter at the door to Ensaf's residence. "It is forbidden for women to speak to men. Our communications were limited," she admits. She was able to see him from her window, and at one point she threw Raif a rose. He kept it until the day they were married. Her family confiscated her telephone.

Nevertheless, the couple persisted and were married in 2002. "My family believes in the culture of the harem," she has said. "When they learned that Raif was a liberal they wanted me to get a divorce and abandon my children." Nor was Raif Badawi's family supportive. Badawi's father reportedly said that his son should be punished and that it should be televised. However, Raif's sister Samer Badawi is also a human rights activist, especially on behalf of women's suffrage. She was at one time reported to be in the same prison as her brother. A second arrest in 2018 precipitated an international incident. When the Canadian foreign minister called for Samer Badawi's release, the Saudi government expelled the Canadian ambassador.  

Obviously, Raif and Ensaf faced obstacles. But it was a happy marriage. "Raif is completely different from anybody else," she once said. "Our life was beautiful until suddenly it changed radically." His pictures before his arrest show a slight man with boyish good looks. In most pictures, he's smiling in a goofy way that belies his dedication to his cause. He has wavy hair and striking eyes. It is easy to imagine him looking up to Ensaf's window and capturing her heart. He was an indulgent father who often asked Ensaf to be the one to say "no" to the children.  

"There are a lot of organizations working hard and actively on his case around the world," she says, "not only organizations, there also good friends around the world who support me and my case. And, sure, I always have a hope, a lot of hope!"

There seems to be only one point of contention between Raif and Ensaf: she has left Saudi Arabia behind, while he still loves his country and has patriotic feelings towards it. "As I mentioned," she says, "I don't care about Saudi Arabia and their future, when I left Saudi Arabia I left everything behind me. The only link is Raif, I'm not a Saudi, I'm a proud Canadian and Quebecois."

This proud Canadian hopes that she will be able to bring her husband to live with her and their three children in her adopted country. Meanwhile, she experiences the hellacious grind known only to those who are working to have family members released from prisons in repressive regimes.

"There are a lot of organizations working hard and actively on his case around the world," she says, "not only organizations, there also good friends around the world who support me and my case. And, sure, I always have a hope, a lot of hope!" 



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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