Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The first 50 lashes: a Saudi activist's wife endures her husband’s brutal sentence

Ensaf Haidar fled to Canada from Saudi Arabia in 2014 after her husband Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for allegedly “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. Here, in an excerpt from her new book, Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story’ (Other Press), she describes learning that his sentence would begin, and how she told her children of their father’s fate.


The new year began with an act of violence. On 7 January 2015, two masked men stormed the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and shot 11 journalists.

The next day, I spoke to Raif. I had spoken to him from prison several times before but will never forget that call as long as I live. “Have you heard about the attack in Paris?” I asked him. “No.” Raif clearly had something else on his mind. “Ensaf, I need to tell you something. Will you promise me that you’ll be brave – and not tell the children?” “Yes, of course.” I sat down on a kitchen chair.

I nervously fumbled a cigarette from the pack in front of me. “Tomorrow they’re going to start enforcing my sentence. One of the prison warders told me.” It took me a moment to understand what he was telling me. “Yes, Ensaf. The first 50 lashes. I’ll get them in front of the big mosque in Jeddah.”

I didn’t know what to say. Over the past few weeks I had completely repressed the idea that Raif was actually going to be whipped in addition to his prison sentence. I simply couldn’t imagine the authorities going ahead with it. “That’s impossible,” I struggled to say. “I’m afraid so, Ensaf,” Raif said. What was I supposed to say? What do you say when the person you love tells you that he’s going to be abused in the most horrible way? “Don’t worry. I’m tough,” he said, apparently quite cheerful. “I can take pretty much anything. I’ll call you as soon as I can. OK?” “OK,” I replied.

I didn’t sleep that night. I calculated the time difference between Canada and Saudi Arabia – and tried to determine the moment when that terrible day for Raif would begin. When would the prison warders wake him? When would they lead him in front of the mosque in handcuffs? Had they already started? In the morning, before the children woke up, I confiscated all the computers, tablets and telephones in the apartment, and I unplugged the television. I told the children that we were going to have a few media-free days because they were watching too much television and spending too much time on the internet. They sulked a little but accepted it. But when I told them they weren’t to go to school that day, but spend the day with my friends Sylvie and Jane and Jane’s dogs, they were very excited. “Oh, great!” said Dodi, who is very fond of the creatures.

As soon as she had set off with them, I checked my Facebook page. It was full of declarations of solidarity with Raif and me: our friends were shocked at what was due to happen today. Lots of people had shared my message and passed it on. “It’s a scandal,” they wrote. Or “Stop this inhuman regime.” Many also drew parallels with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices: “Both are acts of violence aimed at gagging journalists.” And there were many other comments of that kind.

Then I turned on the television and waited for the lunchtime news. My husband was the second item, immediately after the events in France. I was disconcerted to see his familiar picture behind the face of a blonde newsreader. It felt terrible, hearing her talk about Raif as if he was a random foreign news event. The whole day was one big nightmare. I called my friend Mireille. “Have they done it?” I asked her. “Yes,” said Mireille. “In public, in front of a big crowd of people. So we have witnesses. Soon it will be all over the net.” “There’s also supposed to be a video,” she warned me. “Someone filmed Raif’s lashes on their phone.”

It wasn’t hard to find. By now some of my Facebook friends were referring to it. It also appeared immediately on YouTube when you searched for “Raif Badawi” and “lashes”. It was as if I was being operated by remote control. With trembling hands I clicked on the video to set it in motion. I saw Raif’s delicate frame from behind, in the middle of a big crowd of people. He was wearing a white shirt and dark trousers, and his hair hung down to his shoulders. He looked thin. His hands were cuffed in front of his body. I couldn’t see his face. The men around him were wearing the usual white gowns and shouting “Allahu Akbar”.

The man himself could not be made out in the video. But I saw clearly that he was striking Raif with all his might. Raif’s head was bowed. In very quick succession he took the blows all over the back of his body: he was lashed from shoulders to calves, while the men around him clapped and uttered pious phrases. It was too much for me. It’s indescribable, watching something like that being done to the person you love. I felt the pain they were inflicting on Raif as if it was my own.

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. I don’t know how long I sat there for. The phone rang several times, but I didn’t answer. How was Raif now, I wondered. How severe were the wounds that he had suffered from this brutal abuse? Had they broken his bones? The violence of the blows almost made me suspect as much. Did he get medical treatment for his wounds? If only I could have done something for him!

I managed to keep the children away from the internet, from television and from the newspaper kiosks in Sherbrooke all weekend. On Sunday evening, however, the subject was still in the headlines, and I wondered whether I would even be able to send the children to school the next day. I woke them up at half past seven on the dot, as always. But as we were sitting together in the kitchen over cornflakes and maple syrup my phone rang. “Ms Haidar,” asked a woman’s voice. “Can you talk?” It was the principal of the school. She wanted me to come in.

I hurried over. Even in the playground I noticed the other children looking at me and whispering. The principal had already assembled a council of teachers, a social worker and the school psychologist. 

“Thanks for coming,” she said to me. “It’s important that we think together about how to ensure that your children don’t suffer any harm from this. “The teachers and I, along with the psychologist, will talk to the pupils. We will ask them not to talk to your children explicitly about the subject when they come back. We’ll say: We’d like you to meet them quite normally. Don’t be either particularly curious or overly kind or even sympathetic.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“And you must also use today to talk to your children. “You’ve got to tell them what’s happened.”

“But I can’t do that!” “They’ll find out anyway,” she argued. “Children talk to each other. You can’t stop them doing that.” “It’s better if they find out from you,” Robert, the social worker, tried to convince me.

He offered to come home with me and jump in when I couldn’t cope any more.

Once I got home, I called the children together in the sitting room again. They already guessed that my serious face didn’t bode well. “I need to tell you something,” I said, and tried to find the right words. “Something bad happened this weekend.” “Is it about Dad again?” Dodi asked suspiciously. “Is that why we aren’t allowed on the internet?” “How is he?” Najwa – already surprised that her father hadn’t phoned over the weekend as he usually did – asked anxiously. “He’s fine,” I lied. “Everything’s great, but ... the prison warders are very bad people. They, they …” I couldn’t go on because with every word I wanted to say I immediately felt the tears welling up. And I didn’t want to burst out crying in front of them.

Robert leapt in and picked up the thread of the conversation for me. “They’ve beaten your father,” he told the children. They stared at him. “They have hurt him very badly. But now he’s better again.” My children reacted very strangely to this new revelation. They didn’t react at all. They stayed quite still and didn’t ask any questions. Robert did his best to explain what had happened. But the children behaved as if they hadn’t heard their words at all. “We need to give them time to process all this,” Robert said. The children took that time: they fell ill. All three complained of stomach pains and nausea. They didn’t go to school for several days. But they remained persistently silent, even among themselves.

No one in our house ever talked about the subject again.

For almost a week we heard nothing more about Raif. Then all of a sudden we received the call we were so desperate for. If I’m not mistaken it was a Thursday again when Raif was allowed to call us. His voice was weak, but he was trying to make it sound firm. “All OK where you are? How are you and the children?” he asked. I immediately started to cry. “But Ensaf,” he said soothingly. “You’re not going to weep in front of the children?” “How are you?” I sniffed. “Are you in great pain?” “It’s all fine. The wounds heal slowly.” “Are you receiving medical treatment?” “Yes, a doctor examined me. 

He gave me a note saying that I’m not yet fit enough to be whipped again.” “Thank God,” I said. Even if it didn’t tell me anything good about Raif’s physical state, at the same time it was positive news: at least this week they wouldn’t be torturing him anymore. He couldn’t tell me how things would go after that. “Raif,” I said, “the whole world is talking about your fate.” I took a deep breath. “The children know about it, too.” Again the tears came. “There was nothing I could do about it. Believe me, I would rather have spared them all that too.”

This time Raif’s reaction was very understanding. He didn’t level any accusations at me. “You’re doing what you can. It’s all my fault,” he said. “How are they?” “They’re strong,” I lied, “and full of fight.” “Did you expect anything else? They’re your children after all.”

My children and I are grateful for every day when they don’t whip Raif again. After the first 50 lashes – and the international public outcry that followed – the men with the whips in Riyadh did not at first dare to repeat the punishment. Since then our little flat in Sherbrooke has turned into a campaign office for Raif’s liberation. It’s here that we receive journalists and stay in contact with activists all over the world who are standing by us. Raif’s face smiles from the banner over our sofa, while we get together to make posters for the next demonstration. The children eagerly join in.


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

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