Ensaf Haidar has made the battle for the release of her husband from prison her life's work. The wife of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is passionate about the challenge, even in the face of opposition from her own family.
"I'm not really a human rights activist," says Ensaf Haidar. "I just want to lead a normal life with my children and my husband," she told DW.
However, a "normal life" is inconceivable if the husband in Saudi Arabia faces 1,000 lashes with a cane, while the wife and children live in exile in Canada in constant fear for the life of their jailed husband and father.
Three years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for allegedly "insulting" Islam.
Honored by DW
In part, Ensaf Haidar is responsible for the great wave of international solidarity her husband has experienced. The 36-year-old travelled across continents to mobilize support; she meets with human rights activists and politicians to inform them about her husband's fate, gives interviews and is active on Twitter and Facebook. On Tuesday, she will once again turn to the German public with a video message when her imprisoned husband is awarded the "DW Freedom of Speech Award" as part of the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn.
Ensaf Haidar is ferocious in her battle for her husband. Even before the Saudi regime imposed the life-threatening sentence, she passionately fought for him - against her own family. She married Raif Badawi 14 years ago against the will of her parents, in the face of family opposition and the extremely conservative Saudi society. "To this very day, my parents have not forgiven me for marrying Raif," Ensaf Haidar says.
Too liberal for Saudi Arabia
The couple met in an employment agency. Afterwards, Raif Badawi tried to get her telephone number - by Saudi standards, a highly immoral overture. But it was the start of a love story that culminated in marriage in 2002.
Back then, Raif Badawi ran an English language institute in the Saudi coastal town of Jeddah. Unlike his wife, who has a degree in Islamic teachings, he never studied at a university. That never stopped him from continuing his education and pondering how one could change a society marked by extremely conservative values and ruled by religious authorities who don't shy away from meddling in people's private affairs. So in 2006, Raif Badawi founded the website Free Saudi Liberals. Ever since, nothing has been the same for him and his wife. The regime declared war on the freedom-loving blogger.
'Let's get out now'
The authorities were particularly angered when Badawi used his blog to demand doing away with the Saudi religious police. They also disliked the fact that the blogger's demands were increasingly getting international attention. That's when they should have left the country, Ensaf Haidar says: "I told Raif, let's leave before they impose a travel ban against you - but he said he couldn't live anywhere but in Saudi Arabia."
In 2008, the authorities issued a travel ban against the blogger, followed by a series of rulings that limited his civil rights. They rescinded his legal capacity, blocked his bank accounts and he could no longer apply for official documents.
In 2012, Raif Badawi was arrested and imprisoned on charges of insulting Islam and apostasy - a charge punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. The blogger was sentenced to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes and a fine equal to about 194,000 euros. On January 9, 2015, Raif Badawi received the first and so far last 50 lashes at a public square in Jeddah. Further installments of what comes across as a medieval form of punishment have been postponed for "medical reasons" - his wounds had not healed.
Father turns on son
Raif Badawi's father publicly dissociated from him and even told a Saudi TV station he wanted a particularly harsh punishment for his son. The family is as conservative as is the family of Ensaf Haidar.
In 2012, Ensaf Haidar took the couple's children Najwa (11 years old today), Dudi (10) and Mariam (7) and fled first to Cairo and then to Beirut, where she was granted asylum in the Canadian Embassy. She has lived in exile in Quebec, Canada since November 2013, and is doing her best to build a new life there with her children.
Fear and hope in exile
Raif Badawi's phone calls about twice a week are the family's only comfort. "I always ask him how he is doing, and he always says he's fine," his wife says. "But I can tell from his voice that it's not true."
Worry and fear are Ensaf Haidar's constant companions, in particular when there are no calls for a while. Then, she clings to illusions, and hope. "I tell myself, maybe he didn't call because he's about to surprise me here in person." Ensaf Haidar imagines the doorbell ringing, and her husband walking into the room - "and together, we'll listen to our favorite song."
The couple's old favorite is "The story of my love" by legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. So far, Ensaf Haidar has waited in vain.