artwork by Carl Christensen

“I believe that it is my responsibility to use the attention I get to fight against the continuing practice of FGM. I don’t know if you can call that spirituality, but I feel physically connected to every single girl on this planet that still has to suffer because of this cruel practice.”

 

 

Waris Dirie is a woman on a mission, and she seems hell-bent on completing it. 

Her goal: to fight for women’s rights and eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). 

These days, she is in full-blown activist mode. Her journey to this stage in life, however, has been a long and winding road.

It all began for Waris Dirie in the Somali desert. Born into a nomadic family in the 60s, Dirie’s childhood was marked by injustice. At age 5 she experienced FGM – a practice widely believed to be torturous and de-humanizing to women. It intends to ensure the woman will marry as a virgin, but in the process it robs them of any future sexual pleasure. Its horrific procedure also ends up psychologically damaging many women. At age 13 she was arranged to be married to a much older man. Dirie never made the alter. Instead, she embarked on an epic journey out of Africa. 

Beating all odds and obstacles, Dirie arrived in London, England and began a meagre life in the service industry. She began working as a housemaid for her relatives who worked at the Somalian embassy.  When war broke out in Somalia the embassy closed down and her family left, leaving Dirie alone in the country. The only job she could find after that was at McDonald’s. 

As Dirie began to slowly re-build her life in England, fate prepared to intercede and take her on an unimaginable journey.
 
At 18, while working at McDonald’s, Dirie was spotted by fashion photographer Terrence Donovan. From this initial sighting, Dirie’s life would never be the same. 

By 1987, Dirie was gracing the covers of fashion’s most prestigious magazines, walking the runways of the world, and appearing in ads for brands such as Levi’s, Revlon, and L’Oreal. She even made an appearance as a Bond girl in The Living Daylights. 

Dirie was now a million miles from where she began. She transcended her past: she was wealthy, famous, and in control of her life.  Her new lifestyle was a dream, but she could not forget her nightmarish past. So, in 1997 she began to speak out about the practice of FGM. That same year she was appointed as the UN Special Ambassador for the Elimination of FGM. This began Dirie’s work as an activist.

In 1998, with hopes of further spreading awareness of FGM, Dirie told her life’s story in the book Desert Flower: The Extraordinary journey of a desert nomad. The book captured the imagination of millions and propelled Dirie and her message.

In 2002, she took her mission a step further and established the Desert Flower Foundation. This continues to be Dirie’s project to empower women and fight against FGM.

Throughout these years Dirie continued to release new books, won multiple international awards for her humanitarian work, and kept modelling  for various agencies. 

Dirie’s journey reads like a Hollywood script, so inevitably her story has been transported to the silver screen. In 2009, a movie adaptation of her book Desert Flower was released. Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede plays the part of Dirie. 

Despite the massive amount of energy Dirie has committed to educating the world on FGM, it remains as ubiquitous as ever. Her mission is far from over, but she continues to soldier on. 

There is much I WANNA KNOW about Waris Dirie, and her fascinating life. 

From the horrors of FGM, to the Desert Flower foundation, to the flaws of the fashion industry, to the plight of Somalia, we cover it all. 

Ryan Kohls: It was a big year for you and the Desert Flower Foundation. Despite the growing awareness of FGM the issue still persists. For those unfamiliar with the issue of FGM, why is it so problematic? And how widespread does the practice remain in Africa, and the world?

Tools of FGM

Waris Dirie: Female genital mutilation is a practice in which parts of a girl’s vagina are being cut off, often under very unhygienic conditions and using very basic materials such as razor blades or even glass or stone. In some areas, such as in Somalia where I come from, the vagina is then sewn shut to ensure that a girls enters marriage as a virgin. It is an extremely painful, cruel and of course dangerous procedure, and many girls die of infections, shock, loss of blood etc. Those who survive suffer the consequences of FGM for the rest of their lives – both physical and emotional. FGM is very widespread in East Africa, in some countries more than 90 % of all women are affected, but also in West Africa, and Southeast Asia. Migration has spread the problem all over the world since immigrant communities continue to practice FGM abroad. You can find details information on different countries on the website of my foundation, www.desertflowerfoundation.org.

RK: What do you believe is the best way forward in eradicating this practice?

WD: There are several aspects to this. Education is important, because it enables us to teach people about the dangers and consequences of the practice. Working on projects to empower women is even more important, because that’s what enables them to take their own decisions and make different choices for their daughters. This is what my foundation is working on right now with several new projects in Africa.

RK: At the center of Desert Flower’s mission is women’s rights and empowerment. What do you think remains the biggest roadblock to women’s rights?  

WD: Poverty is a big obstacle. It is difficult, if not impossible, to convince a woman not to mutilate her daughters if this is the only way to marry them and hence support the family financially. Poverty makes it very difficult to use common sense in many areas of human rights abuse, and I believe that all attempts to end such abuse must address the issue of poverty, too.

RK: At the core of your fight against FGM is the issue of human rights. In 2011 you were part of committee that created a logo for human rights, can you tell me why that was important to create such an image?
unofficial Human Rights Logo 

WD: There are logos for everything these days, and some logos have become really powerful and are known worldwide, such as the logo for solidarity with people affected by HIV / Aids. Logos do not need language, everyone can understand them and they are easy to share and to use to show one’s own attitude and perceptions. This is why a logo for human rights is so important. It is a problem that affects every single person in the world and should be understood without words.

RK: What inspires you to commit your life to these issues? Is there a spiritual side to your mission?   

WD: Well, of course there’s my own experience of being mutilated as a little child. Having gone through this cruel practice and all the long-term consequences that come with it, I just cannot sit back and watch it being done to thousands of little girls every year. I believe that it is my responsibility to use the attention I get to fight against the continuing practice of FGM. I don’t know if you can call that spirituality, but I feel physically connected to every single girl on this planet that still has to suffer because of this cruel practice. World Social Award – 2004

RK: What role does your Islamic faith play in your Human Rights activism?

WD: I am not a religious person, so for me personally, it does not play a big role. But it is something that needs to be addressed in the fight against FGM, since many people wrongly use religion to justify what they are doing. Let me point this out: FGM has absolutely nothing to do with religion and is not demanded by any religion.

RK: You have been the recipient of a multitude of awards for your humanitarian work, if you had to give out some awards to people you believe are doing amazing work for human rights, who would you give them to and why?

WD: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, because I admire his strength and commitment. Nelson Mandela for his achievements for the people in Africa. And to every single woman in Africa for their strength and the hard work they perform every day to take care of their families. Women are really the backbone of African society and they are not nearly valued enough for it!

RK: Before your humanitarian work you established yourself in the fashion industry. You described modelling, however, as “meaningless” in a TIME magazine interview. Do you think the culture of fashion is having any detrimental effects on women in the world?

WD: I wouldn’t say detrimental, but there is very little contribution to important issues we are facing in this world today coming from the fashion industry. There are some exceptions where people try to bring attention to issues such as human rights abuse, poverty or environmental protection, and I would really like to see this trend continue. I am myself working on projects related to fashion that help bring awareness on FGM to Africa while at the same time securing fairly paid jobs for African women. Fashion can be used for good causes and I would like to see more of that!

RK: Is it hard to model for/support certain companies because of their unethical behavior? For example, Victoria Secret cotton was just exposed as coming from slave-like conditions in Burkina Faso.

WD: Of course, and I think that continues to be a big problem throughout the entire fashion industry!

RK: MEY is a group you are working with, how do you ensure that the products are made with fair wages and proper labor conditions?

WD: Mey products are produced in Germany. The products that we produced in Africa together with MeY came from a small group that I chose myself. It is based in Ethiopia, and I travelled there last year to see it myself.

RK: What role does the fashion industry play in our world that you believe is positive and useful?

WD: The fashion industry gets a lot of attention that it could use for good causes. I don’t think it uses that potential yet, but hopefully that will change in the future.  

Dirie and Kebede

RK: Your home, Somalia, remains one of the most troubled places in the world. What is your hope for the future of this country? What do you believe must be done to ensure the sustainability of Somalia’s future?

WD: Somalia is facing so many problems, I don’t even know where to start. In the current situation, it is very difficult for foreign NGOs to work in Somalia because it is so unstable and dangerous. I really hope that my country will one day rise out of this mess and reach the potential it has. This includes the fight against FGM, but even before, there must be an end to the violence in Somalia.

RK: You seem to be quite critical of foreign aid solving the problem, how do you feel Western aid is hurting the situation?

WD: We all can see what foreign aid has achieved in Africa in the past 60 years. Exactly – not much. It is going to the wrong people, it is supporting violent regimes that exploit their own citizens, and it does not help build sustainable economic structures that Africa need to really overcome poverty. Every child knows that giving a homeless person on the street a coin will not change his life for good. Giving him a job however will. Unfortunately, we do not see to be able to apply this simple logic to foreign aid for Africa yet.

RK: You’ve travelled around the world, where are some of your favorite places in the world? 

WD: My favourite place in the world will always be the Somali Desert where I grew up.

RK: A lot of your work is very serious and demanding, what sort of activities do you do to relax and have fun? For example, who are some of your favorite musical artists?

WD: I love listening to African music. In the morning, I put some music on and dance through the house with my children. I also love spending time outside in the nature, whether it’s in a forest or on the beach. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON WARIS DIRIE:
1) Go to her foundation’s website: http://www.desertflowerfoundation.org/en/

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