Growing up as a nomad in tribal Somalia, Waris Dirie had no vision of becoming a global spokesperson for little girls. She just wanted to get away from the old man her parents were forcing her to marry. So, at 13 she escaped across the desert, fending off a would-be rapist along the way. After falling asleep under a tree, she awoke to find herself staring into the face of a lion. “When I realized the lion was not going to kill me,“ she says, “I knew that God had something else planned, some reason to keep me alive. ’What is it?’ I asked as I struggled to my feet. ’Direct me.’“
While her struggles did not end there, her later life does indeed appear divinely guided. Despite a complete lack of English, she moved to England where she found work as a maid, and briefly, construction worker, before being discovered working at McDonald’s by fashion photographer Terence Donovan. Her modeling career took off, and soon she was gracing the covers of Vogue, Glamour, and Elle magazines.
In 1996, Dirie made a decision: she would use her international fame to draw attention to an issue she was all too familiar with. In an interview with Marie Claire reporter Laura Ziv, Dirie revealed a secret: like millions of other African little girls, she had been subjected to the brutal ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM), sometimes euphemistically known as female circumcision. Unlike those millions, she was breaking the silence surrounding the practice, one enforced by tradition, culture and religion.
When Dirie was only five, an old woman of her tribe used a broken razor blade to cut away her genitals, then sewed her up using a thorn from an acacia tree. She was left with a hole the size of a matchstick through which to urinate and, eventually, menstruate. As a result, she got an infection and lived for years in constant pain. Still, she was luckier than some; both her sister and her cousin died from the procedure. When she finally saw a doctor, he was amazed that she had lived as long as she had.
While FGM is not specifically a religiously-based ritual, it is mainly practiced by followers of Islam in African countries where it is used it as a form of “female initiation.” Though it pre-dated Islam and is not mentioned anywhere in the Koran, fundamentalist clerics have used supplemental texts to justify it as necessary. As Dirie says, “It is not the fault of the Koran if FGM is being mostly practiced in Muslim countries. But religion bears the responsibility.”
An estimated 135 million girls and women have gone through this procedure, with an additional 2 million a year at risk. Aside from death, complications from the procedure include serious infections, HIV, abscesses, small benign tumors, hemorrhages, shock, and clitoral cysts. The long term effects may also include kidney stones, sterility, sexual dysfunction, depression, various urinary tract infections, various gynecological and obstetric problems.
The impact of Dirie’s revelation was immense. The magazine was swamped with letters, and the following year, she was appointed Special Ambassador to the United Nations for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. She has become the voice for millions of little girls, trapped in cultures that continue the inhumane practice. Lately, she’s been working to raise awareness in Europe, where the practice has unfortunately been exported. Dirie estimates that as many as 500,000 girls in the European Union are at risk. Earlier this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy presented her with the Legion of Honor for her work to end FGM in France. The Waris Dirie Foundation has been instrumental in creating legislation in England and France that classifies FGM as a crime.
In choosing to stand up and speak out, Waris Dirie has brought light to a very dark issue and hope where there was only silent suffering. Her life exemplifies the potential we all have to speak truth and create change, no matter what our circumstance.
SC: In your life, you have taken many leaps. You ran away over miles of wild territory from a forced marriage, left Somalia, stayed in England without any family, and told your story to Marie Claire Magazine. What allowed you to continuously leap rather than succumb to your circumstances?
WD: I have no answer for this question even though I have asked myself the same many times. I always felt like I was protected although I´ve met a lot of hard situations in my life. One moment I was definitely not protected was when I was mutilated at the age of five. I was sure that there was something wrong with that and I was really angry for being hurt that horribly. Maybe my anger drove me to where I am now. Of course there were a lot of happy coincidences in my life and I had tons of good luck. Mainly I keep fighting to protect all the other little girls from undergoing the same torture.
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SC: Your foundation has begun taking on the issue of FGM in Europe and abroad. How big is the problem and what impact are you having?
WD: About five years ago, before I started investigating for my book Desert Children, which deals with FGM and migration in Europe, I had no idea how widespread the practise of FGM is among migrated people. Now we know that at least 500,000 women in Europe were mutilated or are at risk. There are thousands of girls mutilated in Europe and there are even more who are sent abroad for their mutilation. Fortunately, we are making a strong impact: After Desert Children was published, a lot of magazines, television and radio broadcasts have made FGM a topic and raised awareness. The fight against FGM was put on the EU-Agenda 2006. There are several studies carried out by medical professionals. I think we are doing quite a good job in campaigning here in Europe. What is still missing is the understanding that women fleeing from their countries in order to save themselves or their daughter from being mutilated, need to be accepted as asylum seekers all over Europe. That´s a long way to go, but we need to keep up the work to protect little girls.
SC: One aspect of FGM is that it is perpetuated by women on to other women, despite the fact that the elders obviously know the pain it causes. How, if at all, has this changed since you first addressed the issue?
WD: What we see nowadays is the tendency that FGM happens as a medical procedure. Doctors are performing FGM under sterile circumstances. I really hope that people start to realize that if they are changing something in their FGMculture, they should abolish it instead of modernizing it. What has changed is that more and more African sisters raise their voice against FGM, work in NGOs or grassroots initiatives to end FGM. We need to support them in any way we can.
SC: By taking your stand, how have you impacted the culture that has allowed the practice of FGM to continue for so many years?
Now we know that at least 500,000 women in Europe were mutilated or are at risk.
WD: I do not feel comfortable saying that every change in this fight against FGM was impacted by my work. Of course, I was the first woman talking about this crime. And the reactions were overwhelming. But nowadays there are a lot of organisations and initiatives that oppose FGM. What I really hope is that I have had an impact on many African individuals. I keep on receiving emails from people from FGM-practising countries where they state that they had no idea about the harmful consequences of FGM. And that they will not do it to their daughters. If we succeed in breaking down the taboo, the “wall of silence”, I’m sure that we are able to eradicate FGM.
SC: You have said that women are the backbone of Africa. How can the great strength of African women bring change to the continent?
WD: If women were liberated and had equal rights - everything would change. If we succeed in breaking down the patriarchal system no woman would be sold by her father, no woman would be forced to marry a man who already had another wife, no woman would be mutilated in order to become a bride. I’m sure that women would not allow this stupid clan and warlord’s system to persist, for example. The Europeans like to forget their own history. If we look at Europe a hundred years ago - what was a woman worth then? Nothing! Like nowadays in Africa it was not possible for a woman here to have any other plan for life than to marry and bring up some children. Women are the backbone of Africa. If they are free, they would no longer accept that they are the only ones working that hard. Africa is a rich continent and I’m sure that women would know how to handle it with care. If the African woman is free, Africa is free.
Women are the backbone of Africa…if the African woman is free, Africa is free.
SC: Your personal choices have helped to evolve the world. What has been your source of inner strength?
WD: That’s easy to answer: I won’t rest until I complete my mission because I’m so deeply into it. And I live with the knowledge that every ten seconds a girl is tortured for these stupid reasons. We have to get over FGM because no woman deserves to be hurt and suffer for her whole life. During the last years I got so many reactions not only from European or American people but also from Somali women, who asked me not to stop. These reactions help me to keep up the fight and I’ve got this goal in my mind: to eradicate female genital mutilation from our world.
SC: Your latest book is called Letters to my Mother. You reunited with your own mother in 1995. As a mother yourself, what do you want to say to other mothers, especially mothers of girls?
WD: Give them the chance to live their life as protected children and selfconfident adults. Teach them how to solve problems with discussions and make sure that they know that they are worth as much as any man around.
I live with the knowledge that every ten seconds a girl is tortured for these stupid reasons.
Today there is a legal discussion taking place in San Francisco about making the practice of circumcision on boys illegal. The argument is that it is a similar practice to FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). What are your thoughts on this issue?