The Life of Waris Dirie

CW: Female Genital Mutilation, gendered violence, rape, death, forced marriage.

For FGM Awareness Week, Maddie Burton discusses the life of one of the movement’s key campaigners, Waris Dirie.

Somalian nomad girl and model, Waris Dirie, can be credited for bringing female genital mutilation to the attention of the rest of the world. Currently living in Austria having founded the Desert Flower Foundation, which aims at ending FGM with a focus on Africa, she has four books and one film which tell the amazing story of her life.

There seems to have been a good deal of chance, combined with her own personal gumption, in Dirie’s life story. The name ‘Waris’ means ‘desert flower’ and her first book and her film are so named. They detail her beginnings, her journey from Somalia to London and the becoming a supermodel. Her first novel has such an optimistic tone, with romanticised details about nomadic life – being able to smell when it would rain and the desert flowers appearing afterwards, running around with her siblings and having no walls to restrain her.

That is, until one encounters the terrible restraints placed upon her for being female. The book makes no point about sexism until the end, but here are some of the hard facts:

When Dirie was just three, her sister bled to death after being circumcised; no one spoke of her death. Dirie herself was circumcised when she was five, before she even knew what sex was, just that uncircumcised girls are dirty. She underwent infibulation circumcision, where both the labia minora and labia majora are cut away and the wound is stitched up, leaving only a tiny hole. Other girls she knew died from hideous infection after their circumcision, but an uncircumcised girl could not get married.

Dirie was first raped aged four, but was unable to fully understand what had happened. In her first book, there are three other cases of attempted rape upon her and there may have been more. Six out of eleven of her siblings died and each time her mother gave birth she would go out alone in the desert, returning with the new baby afterwards. Furthermore, if a woman died in childbirth, she died alone; the family would have to find her body days later. Finally, when Dirie was 13, she ran away from her family after her father arranged for her to marry a man aged around 60.

So these were her harsh beginnings. Dirie’s journey took her to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, to live with relatives of her mother’s. Running away was not to be underestimated; in doing so she had cost her family not only a pair of hands to help look after their animals, but also the camels that her new husband would have given her father.

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And she literally did run away, across the desert. Dirie stayed in Mogadishu until she had the chance to work as a maid for the Somalian ambassador in London.

Here, there are some endearingly amusing details about her acclimatisation to British life; she describes how the first time she saw a white person she thought they were ill, how she lost her shoe on an escalator in the airport and how cold London felt.

It was during this time that she was spotted by the photographer Malcolm Fairchild; she was working as a cleaner in McDonalds and her modelling for him led to her later success with the legendary photographer Terence Donovan, who helped her secure the cover for the 1987 Pirelli calendar. Dirie then went on to model for Chanel, L’Oréal, Levi’s and Revlon, amongst others.

This time wasn’t without its struggles; Dirie underwent two marriages in order to stay in the UK and work, encountering a great deal of problems with her second husband. She once used her friend’s passport in order to travel under the unfortunately unlikely pseudonym ‘Marilyn Monroe’.

Dirie herself says that the moment her female genital mutilation happened to her she wanted to fight for women against the abominable tradition. However, it wasn’t until she was interviewed for an American Marie Claire article in 1997 entitled ‘The Day That Changed My Life’, the interviewer expecting her to recount being spotted as a model, that Dirie told her story of the day that she was mutilated or ‘cut’.

Before this point there had been little to no word of female genital mutilation in the west and Dirie received messages of support from all sides, as well as letters of discouragement from Somalian people who were offended that she should go against their traditions.

That same year, 1997, Dirie became UN ambassador for the abolition of FGM. It was at this time that she abandoned her modelling career to focus on her cause. She authored her first book, Desert Flower, in 1998 and went on to write three other books, Desert Dawn, Letter to my Mother and Desert Children. A film was later released in 2009 based on the book Desert Flower under the same name and was internationally acclaimed.

As a means of furthering her anti-FGM cause, Dirie founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna, Austria, which both raises awareness for FGM and currently aims at saving girls from female genital mutilation through a sponsorship system.

To date, 1115 girls have been saved by her foundation, the first being the little girl named Safa who played Dirie in the 2009 film Desert Flower. In 2009 she also co-founded the PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights and the Desert Dawn Foundation, which raises money for schools and clinics in Somalia.

Waris Dirie very much lives up to her name, as the desert flower is strong and triumphs through adversity and harsh conditions. She continues to fight hard for the lives of girls all over the world to be less punitive and unfair. Many have since joined her in her cause to end FGM and she can be credited with bringing attention to the matter across the west and in countries where many thought the tradition would never change. She remains strong in her convictions and more than those 1115 girls can thank her for her courage.

This article is part of Bristol Feminist Society’s FGM Awareness Week. If you are reading this and are worried about FGM personally, there are any number of helplines one can call and organisations that can help you. The NSPCC FGM helpline is 0800 028 3550.

Illustration by Miriam Cocker.



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