Waris Dirie

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Pioneer Who Broke the Global Silence Surrounding Female Genital Mutilation
Waris Dirie
“FGM is nothing but an especially cruel symptom of the suppression of women. It will only stop if men and societies overcome their fear of the strength and the power of women and finally give them a place in society that values them equally to men.”

Renowned supermodel, Waris Dirie’s inspiring story personifies strength and the courage to rise above incredible obstacles. Waris was born in 1965 in a nomadic family in Gallcaio, Somalia, near the Ethiopian border. At the age of five, she was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a traumatic experience that left a profound mark on her and would shape much of her life to come. At the age of 13, Waris fled from a forced marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather. After escaping through the Somali desert she eventually landed in London where she worked as a housemaid. She was discovered by famous British photographer Terence Donovan who helped launch her career in modelling at the age of 18 and paved the way for her international celebrity.

Equality Now’s first meeting with Waris followed the publication of an interview with her in Marie Claire magazine in March 1996 titled, “The Tragedy of Female Circumcision.” At the end of that article concerned readers who wanted to take action on FGM were directed to Equality Now. In response to the article we received thousands of letters and Waris visited our office later that year to look at the letters and learn about our work.

Her career as a supermodel aside, Waris’ contribution to the women’s rights movement is noteworthy. We take this opportunity to highlight her pioneering role as an anti-FGM activist. She had the courage to speak out as both survivor and advocate about the harms of FGM at a time when silence and taboo engulfed this issue. She strategically used her international celebrity to raise awareness about FGM around the world, at the UN, in the media globally and later through her Desert Flower Foundation which seeks to end FGM by creating networks, organizing events, developing educational programs and supporting survivors.

A new film about Waris’ incredible story, called Desert Flower, has just been released and so we took the opportunity of reconnecting with Waris to speak about her experiences as an anti-FGM activist.

1. When do you first recall the urge inside you to become an activist against FGM and what triggered that need to speak out?

Even though I was just a very small child, I knew that I wanted to fight against this cruelty the moment I was mutilated. I can recall very well that I decided to fight against FGM the moment I was able to think straight again after it happened to me. I did not know how and when, but I knew that I would do it one day. 

2. Was it a gradual transformation from supermodel to activist or did you always know FGM was an important cause for you?

I always knew, I was just waiting for the right moment to speak out. Having gained fame and thus attention as a model, I knew that my statement on this issue would be heard. I had a responsibility to use this chance and start a public debate about FGM because of the millions of girls that continue to be affected by it. I always knew that not doing something against it was not an option for me.

3. Were you nervous initially to speak out against FGM as a Somali survivor/activist at a time when few women did internationally?

Of course I was very nervous and scared. FGM is a huge taboo in the society I come from and in many other societies too, and in the West, very few people even knew about it at the time. Plus, it is of course a very personal issue. So yes, I was very nervous, but I knew it was something I had to do.

4. FGM in Somalia has a particularly high prevalence rate, yet there remains mostly silence surrounding the issue, with a few exceptions. Have you seen changes in your life in terms of the practice in Somalia?

Waris visits Equality Now’s New York office

Change in Somalia is going more slowly than in other countries, which is obvious given that there is in fact no government in place that could enforce any laws effectively, even if it wanted to. What I do observe, however, is that the taboo is becoming less powerful: it is becoming possible to talk about issues related to sexuality and sexual health, which is a big improvement. But of course, Somalia has a very, very long way to go, and this problem cannot be considered solved until there is not one single girl on this planet threatened by this horrible crime.

5. How has your foundation and work addressed ending the practice?

My foundation works to end this practice on several different levels. For many years, we focused on raising awareness on the issue, which was very important, given that most people had never heard about it. The campaigns to make this problem more widely known have created great results on a political level: many countries have changed their laws and made FGM illegal and punishable. It did not create the results I wanted to see among the people who practice it. I realized that even if mothers know of the risks and dangers of FGM, they will still be pressured to have their daughters mutilated if the financial survival of their families depend on it. In many communities, a girl can only be married if she is mutilated. This has to change, too. Also, women need more financial independence in order to be able to take responsible decisions for their families. This is why my foundation is currently working on projects that help create long-term and sustainable employment for women in Africa.

6. Do you think FGM can be stopped in your lifetime and what will it take to stop it? 

I certainly hope so. But it will take substantial changes in the way society looks at and values women. FGM is nothing but an especially cruel symptom of the suppression of women. It will only stop if men and societies overcome their fear of the strength and the power of women and finally give them a place in society that values them equally to men. Men will have to overcome their fear of female sexuality. That's when FGM will cease to exist.

7. What suggestions would you give young people to help end the practice of FGM?

Empower the women. They are the ones that drive change within society. I am absolutely convinced that an educated woman with a stable income who is respected and valued by the society she lives in will not mutilate her daughters.

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