voice of freedom book coverReviewed by Meredith Kelly

Raif Badawai, The Voice of Freedom is a beautifully written memoir that tells the story of how the author, Ensaf Haidar, and her husband, Raif, met and came to be married, and of their subsequent struggles to preserve their family and their lives. Despite strict opposition from their families, Ensaf and Raif were determined to be together and refused to give up. After eighteen months of harassment, Ensaf’s family allowed her to sign the marriage contract.

The newlywed couple was able to settle into the traditional marriage arrangement quickly. In Saudi Arabia, men felt it was their duty to make all the decisions and to ensure the material well-being of the family. At first, Raif rarely consulted Ensaf with anything. Making new friends and reading more progressive books, Raif soon started an internet forum for Saudi liberals. As a result, he started granting Ensaf more rights as a woman and even asking for her opinion on different matters. This represented a major change in his attitude about the treatment of women–traditionally very archaic.

As the forum became more popular it came under the suspicion of the “Religious Police”, made up of clerics and ultra-conservatives. Raif’s liberal views were not favorable to the Holy State. As retaliation, the “Religious Police” tried to take the forum offline but were not successful. It was on a foreign server. They raided Raif’s office and home looking for evidence to bring a trial against him. Raif endured many hours of questions and often brutal beatings at the police station. Unfortunately, he also found out that the country moved to deny his “existence” and he lost all his rights, including his right to leave the country.

When Ensaf noticed the words “fatwa” imposed on Raif’s website, she was terrified. Fatwa is a legal opinion made by clerics that demands the death penalty. This message led Raif to insist that they must get away to another country and began an odyssey that took Ensaf and their three children to Egypt, and then Lebanon.

Soon after arriving in Beirut, Ensaf attempted to contact Raif with no success. Something was wrong. She finally got through to his lawyer and found out that Raif was in jail, held in “investigative custody” without any official charges. Raif’s father, Abu Raif, a devout Muslim, had gone public with his hatred for his son because of his lack of respect for the Islamic faith. Backed by the clerics and the ultra conservatives, Abu Raif made a public appeal on Facebook asking the king, his emirs and the Saudi government for the right to bring up Raif’s children.

Their need to escape ever more urgent, Ensaf worked with a lawyer at the UN to gain refugee status and immigrate to Canada. After a long and arduous journey, Ensaf and the children finally landed in Quebec in late 2013. With the help of Amnesty International, Raif’s case has received enormous international support. However, at the time this book was released,  Raif was still in jail in Saudi Arabia.

Voice of Freedom was an unforgettable book that I will carry with me for a long time. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is the first thought that came to mind when I finished Raif’s story. This is a must read for anyone interested in world politics and for those who believe in human rights for all.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Meredith has been an avid reader since childhood and loves to talk about books. A bit of a Luddite, she has only recently become acquainted with eReading and online book reviews. She finds exposure to such a wide audience of opinion on books fascinating.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Other Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.