Women's rights activist, model
Though she was among the top models in the world for some years, model Waris Dirie has disfigured feet, covered with scars she acquired during a nine-day flight across the desert after she ran away from her nomadic family in Somalia to escape a forced marriage. Those are not, however, her most serious scars. When she was five years old, Dirie underwent an extreme form of female genital mutilation. As her mother held her down on a rock, a nomad woman removed flesh from her genitals, "with an old razor blade, and then she sewed the wound coarsely"—using thorns to punch holes—"leaving only a tiny hole to urinate." The procedure left Dirie permanently changed, physically and emotionally for the rest of her life.
"I still remember every last detail," Dirie told interviewer Jenny Johnston of England's Mirror. "I still remember the pain, my God, the pain. But I didn't move an inch. I wanted Mama to be proud of me." Proud, for her parents had told her there were bad things between her legs and they had to be removed. In a way, however, Dirie was lucky; estimates suggest that one in four girls die during the procedure, which is common in parts of Africa and is practiced in 28 countries around the world. For two of Dirie's sisters and two of her cousins, the procedure was fatal, something that must have weighed on Dirie's mind as she lay recuperating for weeks, with her legs tied together. Dirie's amazing odyssey took her from the Somali desert to London, England, where she ascended through the ranks of fashion models and eventually reached a pinnacle of that world, appearing as a "Bond girl" in the 1987 film The Living Daylights. After she began to tell interviewers what she had lived through, she gave up modeling and became a campaigner against the practice of female genital mutilation.
Grew Up in Nomadic Setting
Neither clocks nor calendars were used among the Daarood people of Somalia, the culture in which Dirie grew up. She was born, according to her best guess, in 1965. Her name means "Desert Flower," which became the title of her first book. Dirie's family were nomadic livestock herders, living in a grass hut which they would move from place to place on the back of a camel every few weeks as they sought new grazing land for their herd of animals. "All the children in my family tended the animals. We began helping as soon as we could walk," Dirie told Johnston. "By the age of six I was responsible for taking herds of about 60 sheep and goats into the desert to graze. I got my long stick and headed off alone with my herd, singing my little song to guide them." Dirie lived in harmony with lions, giraffes, zebras, and other wildlife. Though their existence was simple, Dirie's family was wealthy by Somali standards, for their herds were large.
Dirie didn't blame her mother for allowing her mutilation to occur, for the family had been told the the Koran required it. Female circumcision is practiced in both Islamic and Christian cultures, but actually neither the Koran nor the Bible mentions the operation at all. The vaginas of Somali brides are unsewn after marriage, and uncircumcised women are usually considered unmarriageable. Dirie, like many other children, actually looked forward to the procedure, but it left her in pain for many years.
When she was about 13, Dirie's father announced that he had found a husband for her—a 60-year-old man who had bought her for the price of five camels. "I pictured my life with the old man in some isolated desert place. Me doing all the work while he limped around," she told Johnston. "Me raising four or five babies after he died—because in Somalia, widows do not remarry." So Dirie, a stubborn girl from the start, took off walking into the Somali desert, with no clear idea of where she was going. Nine days later, after fending off an attempted rape by a truck driver by hitting him in the head with a rock, and after nearly being eaten by a lion, she arrived in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. She located relatives there and managed to survive.
In Mogadishu Dirie worked as a bricklayer. Then she learned that one of her uncles had been named Somalia's ambassador to Britain, and when he said that he could use her as a maid, she jumped at the chance. Arriving in London, she saw snow, flush toilets, and escalators for the first time. As her uncle prepared to return to Somalia for a periodic visit, she hid her passport in a garden and told him she had lost it. She stayed on in England as an illegal alien, and a woman at a YWCA helped her get a job scrubbing floors at a McDonald's restaurant. She enrolled in night classes and learned to understand, read, and write English. When she was 20, she underwent surgery to have the opening of her vagina restored.
Modeled for Calendar
Dirie's life took another amazing turn when fashion photographer Terence Donovan spotted her working at McDonald's and gave her his card, suggesting that she try modeling. At the time she did not understand what he was saying, but as her English improved she read the card and learned that it offered her a path into the profession followed by her idol, the Somali-born fashion model Iman. Her own career got off to a rocky start when she was told to remove her top during her first shoot and ran out of the building, but Donovan became a good friend, and she landed several high-profile modeling jobs, including one for L'Oreal cosmetics and another for a popular calendar issued by the Pirelli tire firm. She appeared on fashion-show runways and landed a role in The Living Daylights, which was filmed partly in Morocco, and she amazed film crews by entering and placing second in a camel race with several Arab male jockeys who had been hired as wranglers.
Despite this roaring start, however, Dirie had problems finding work in Britain due to a lingering prejudice against black models. In addition, she remained a nomad at heart, and she would continue to move from one place to another every few years over the next two decades. So in 1988 she moved to New York. She modeled for Revlon cosmetics, which at one time named her the most beautiful woman in the world. Immersed in the intense world of New York high fashion, Dirie sometimes wished for the slower pace of life in Africa. She met dozens of men but kept them at arm's length, unwilling to tell them about her background.
At a Glance …
Born 1965(?) in Somalia; grew up in nomadic culture; lived with jazz musician Dana Murray, New York, mid-1990s; children: one son, Aleeke. Education: Attended night classes in London, England.
Career: Bricklayer, maid, Mogadishu, Somalia, 1965(?); London, maid (for uncle), late 1960s; McDonald's, London, restaurant employee, 1970s; fashion model, 1980s–; United Nations special ambassador for women's rights in Africa, 1997–; author, 1998–.
Addresses: Office—Waris Dirie Foundation, Verein zur Förderung von Hilfsaktionen für Afrika, Millennium Tower 24th Floor, Handelskai 94-96, 1200 Vienna, Austria; Web—www.waris-dirie-foundation.com.
Dirie finally met jazz musician Dana Murray. "Part of my body was cut away but nothing important was missing when Dana kissed me," she told Stuart Wavell of London's Sunday Times. "For me sex has to do with how I feel about my partner. Intimacy begins in my head and ends in my heart." On their first date, Dirie told Murray that she was going to have his baby, and a son, Aleeke, was born in 1997. The relationship, however, eventually dissolved, and Dirie moved back to England.
During her stay in the United States, Dirie began to speak out about what she had experienced as a child. According to her website, the first reporter in whom she confided was Barbara Walters. Dirie took a risk in talking about genital mutilation, for some Islamic fundamentalists considered the procedure sacred. Discussing it, she told Johnston, "is as bad as running naked down Fifth Avenue," and she was and remains in danger of violent attack. But her story also stirred up international interest as she began to share it with with a range of other publications. Though speaking about her experiences remained difficult for her, Dirie did not avoid explicit descriptions of genital mutilation.
Published Autobiographical Novel
In 1997 Dirie published the book Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, written with Cathleen Miller. Described as an autobiographical novel, the book traced the events of Dirie's childhood and her rise to international fame. The book was translated into major international languages, sold well in many countries and brought Dirie considerable publicity. In Germany it spent 120 weeks on the bestseller list maintained by the weekly magazine Der Spiegel. Singer Elton John optioned her story for a film, but the plans never came to fruition. Shortly after the book appeared, Dirie became the spokeswoman for a United Nations campaign against female circumcision, and she gave up her modeling career. Her official post was special ambassador for women's rights in Africa.
After returning to England with her son, Dirie avoided the hustle and bustle of London and settled in Cardiff, Wales. Her peaceful existence in rural England came to an end when she became the victim of a stalker, a mentally disturbed Portuguese man who may have become aware of her when a relative did maintenance work on her home. Dirie moved once again, to an apartment in Vienna, Austria. In March of 2004 the stalker tracked her down, talked his way into her apartment, and beat her up. He was arrested when he later tried to return.
Dirie wrote two more books. Desert Dawn (2003, written with Jeanne d'Haem) concerned her 1998 journey back to Somalia, where she found her family mostly ruined by the country's ongoing civil war. Despite the break that had occurred after the marriage he had arranged for her, Dirie's father told her that he was proud of what she had accomplished. Desert Children (2005) took up the cause of Islamic women in Europe who had experienced genital mutilation—some 500,000 were at risk, according to Dirie, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. "I have lived in the West for more than 20 years and I knew that this crime went on here before I even started researching my new book," she told Bryony Gordon of the Daily Telegraph. Would genital mutilation ever be eliminated? "Things will change," she told Wavell, "whether it's in my lifetime or the next generation."
(With Cathleen Miller) Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, Morrow, 1998.
(With Jeanne d'Haem) Desert Dawn, Virago, 2003.
Desert Children, Virago, 2005.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 11, 2004, p. 7; October 31, 2005.
Express on Sunday (London, England), July 7, 2002, p. 54.
Houston Chronicle, November 26, 2004, p. 25.
Independent (London, England), March 22, 1998, p. 4.
Mirror (London, England), March 2, 1999, p. 21; July 5, 2002, p. 22.
People, November 2, 1998, p. 149.
Sunday Times (London, England), July 18, 2004, p. 7.
Time International, July 15, 2002, p. 58.
Times (London, England), October 3, 1997, p. 11.
Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales, England), March 11, 2004, p. 1.
Waris Dirie Foundation, http://www.waris-dirie-foundation.com (January 2, 2006).
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