Waris Dirie was about five years old when she was left in a makeshift shelter under a tree for several days to recover from her “operation”, like all the girls in her community, she had undergone female circumcision, more accurately known as female genital mutilation (FGM).(1) Her mother held her down when she was cut without anesthesia by a gypsy woman. Dirie’s vaginal opening was stitched closed with thorns. The pain was horrific. “Can you imagine anything worse than hearing the screams of pain of your own child?” she asks.
Dirie says she lay there, talking to God, saying “make me stay alive. You owe me this now.”
“It’s impossible to describe the pain,” she continues. One of Dirie’s older sisters bled to death after the procedure, while a six-year-old cousin perished from a resulting infection. In her book, Dirie makes it clear that FGM is blatant butchering, writing, “It’s like someone is slicing through the meat of your thigh or cutting off your arm, except this is the most sensitive part of your body.” In many African communities, she goes on to explain, “the prevailing wisdom is that there are bad things between a girl’s legs.”
At around 13, her father sold her to a much older man to be his next wife. The plan was that he would cut open her stitched vagina with a knife or break it open by penetrating her. So she ran away. She ran barefoot. She was alone in the desert for days — no water, no food. “I knew that as long as I was alive, I could make it,” she says. “I had nothing to lose but my freedom.” Once, she woke up to find a lion staring at her. She believes he did not gobble her up because she was too skinny. “I wasn’t worth eating,” she says.(2)
She reached relatives in Mogadishu. From there, she managed to make it to London – an aunt was married to Somalia’s ambassador to Britain – and she worked as their maid for several years. When they returned to Somalia, she stayed on, learned English and got a job at McDonald’s, eventually being spotted by the late fashion photographer Terence Donovan. He ended up shooting her for the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. By the 1990s, Dirie had become a supermodel, fronting Chanel campaigns and appeared in the James Bond film The Living Daylights.(1)
“My mother named me after a miracle of nature: Waris means desert flower. The desert flower blooms in barren environment where few living things can survive“(5)
Weary of being labeled “the nomad gypsy model,” Dirie quit modeling at the height of her career and broke her silence about FGM in 1997. “It’s about empowerment,” Dirie says. She knew her high profile image would help get her message out, but she says, “Being famous is not the reason I went public. When I lay down at night and could not sleep, I would hear the screams of all the girls out there who still have to suffer through it. I just knew this was my mission. Even as a little girl, I knew that I would fight against this crime. I didn’t know how, where, or when, but I knew I would do it.”(2)
The World Health Organization estimates there are about 140 million women in the world who have had FGM, from removal of the clitoral hood to the whole excision of external genitalia before the vagina is sewn up, with only a small hole left for urine and menstrual blood. It usually happens before the age of 15, and in some cases is performed on babies, in the belief that the girl will grow up “clean”, her “honour” intact along with her virginity as a way of preparing her for marriage; this happens to 3 million girls every year. Aside from the intense pain and risk of infection at the time, it carries lasting consequences: difficulty urinating, sex is painful and pleasure-free, and childbirth can be fatal both to the baby and the mother. Botched FGM can leave women doubly incontinent and ostracized by their communities.
“Anything to do with females is considered less important,” says Dirie. The other argument she hears is that it is a “cultural” practice – tolerated on one side by people who don’t want to be seen as racist if they interfere; ignored on the other side by people who are not interested because it doesn’t affect them.
It isn’t only something that happens in rural communities in Africa or Asia. Figures are difficult to come by, but one study estimates there are 66,000 women in England and Wales living with FGM, and 20,000 girls are at risk.(1)
According to experts at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an estimated 228,000 women in the U.S. have undergone the procedure or are at risk. “Violence against woman does not know borders,” notes Dirie. “There are an estimated 40,000 FGM victims in New York City alone.”(2)
In 1997, the same year as Waris quit modeling, she was appointed the UN Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. In 2002, she founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna, Austria, an organization aimed at raising awareness regarding the dangers surrounding FGM. Waris followed that in January 2009 with the establishment of the PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights’, an organization she founded along with French tycoon François-Henri Pinault (CEO of PPR) and his wife, Hollywood actress Salma Hayek. Waris has also started the Desert Dawn Foundation, which raises money for schools and clinics in her native Somalia, and supports the Zeitz Foundation, an organization focused on sustainable development and conservation.(3)
Waris has received many prizes and awards for her humanitarian work and books including:
- Woman of the Year Award (2000) by Glamour magazine.
- Corine Award (2002) of the umbrella association of the German bookselling trade.
- Women’s World Award (2004) from former President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.
- Bishop Óscar Romero Award (2005) by the Catholic Church.
- Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (2007) from former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.
- Prix des Générations (2007) by the World Demographic Association.
- Martin Buber Gold Medal from the Euriade Foundation (2008), founded by Werner Janssen in 1981.
- Gold medal of the President of the Republic of Italy (2010) for her achievements as a human rights activist.
- Thomas Dehler Prize (2013) of the Thomas Dehler Foundation, presented by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger
- Woman Of The Year Campaigning Award (2013) in London presented by Sacla
- International Freedom Prize (2014) presented at the House of Lords in London by British Minister Lynne Featherstone
- Women for Women Award (2017), awarded in Vienna by the magazine “look!
- Donna dell’Anno (2018) in Italy
- Million Chances Award (2018) donated by the Fritz Henkel Foundation
- Sunhak Peace Prize (2019) for her commitment to women’s rights, awarded in Seoul.
In 1998, Waris authored her first book, Desert Flower, an autobiography that went on to become an international bestseller.
In 2009, a feature-length film based on Waris’ book Desert Flower was released, with the Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede playing her.(3)
Waris Dirie has walked the runways of all important fashion houses in New York, London, Milan and Paris. She has appeared in advertisements for Chanel, and L’Oreal and has been featured in Vogue, Elle and Harpers Bazaar — to name but a few. Most importantly, she was the first black model to be used by Oil of Olay — Waris Dirie began her legacy by proving that beauty did not exclusively require white skin. From the beginning of her career, she has stood as a figure of powerful moral rectitude, questioning and confronting the vain and the superficial so rife in her world.(4)
“When I go back to Somalia and talk to women about FGM,” Dirie says, “they always ask me, ‘You mean you left your camels to go live in white man’s world?’
“And I always say, ‘Yes, I did that. A camel girl did that. I did it with my wish and my wheel and my way.”(2)
She is hopeful. “The world is changing, especially with technology, [people have access to] any information. I don’t want little girls to be like me, to travel the world to find out that this doesn’t happen [to all women] and what has happened is wrong.”(1)
- Feature image: Waris Dirie facebook