WHO doesn't love a rags to riches, success story?
By the 90s, magazine editors and photographers were fawning over top model, Waris Dirie. They couldn't get enough of the exotic beauty who rebelled against her father's wishes to marry a much older man and ran away barefoot from her nomadic family in the dead of night and would later find herself walking the runways of Milan, New York and Paris.
But one person had had enough — it was Waris herself. She was tired of the obligatory interviews when she would sit in posh hotel rooms and tell the story of how as a girl, she left her camel herding family in the deserts of Somalia and came to model for Chanel, Levi's and Revlon, act alongside Timothy Dalton in the James Bond flick The Living Daylights and was featured not once but twice on the cover of the exclusive and prestigious Pirelli Calender. Modelling provided her with things she could have only dreamed of had she remained in Somalia. But something was weighing on her mind, a painful childhood experience which more than 140 million women and girls have endured in the name of religion and culture. And Waris needed to talk about it.
It was while she sat down for one of those run-of-the-mill interviews that Waris stared the reporter straight in the eye and gave her a challenge.
"All of that fashion model's stuff been done a million times. If you promise to publish it, I'll give you a real story," she told writer for fashion magazine Marie Claire, Laura Ziv. Interested in what the statuesque model had to say, Ziv agreed and soon Waris was pouring out her real story into a tape recorder.
If you've ever heard the words 'Female Genital Mutilation' (FGM), then chances are, you've read bits and pieces of Waris's personal experience.
As explained by the Desert Flower Foundation, an organisation headed by Waris herself, FGM is a destructive operation done without anaesthesia during which the female genitals are partly or entirely removed or injured with the goal of inhibiting a woman's sexual feelings.Then the wound is stitched shut, leaving a tiny opening where the genitals had been. Most often the surgery is performed before puberty, often on girls between the ages of four and eight, but recently it is performed on nurslings who are only a few days, weeks and months old.
"FGM is widespread in East Africa, West Africa, Egypt, Asia and parts of the Middle East. If the girls in these countries are not cut, the parents will not be able to marry them off and to get a bride price for them. The bride price is a very important income for the families, because most of them are very poor. Men demand that the girls have to be cut, because they believe that this way the wife will be faithful. This is a pure form of suppression," Waris tells Woman.
If you imagine that this issue happens outside the United States, think again. Experts estimate that more than 200,000 women in the US have undergone the procedure or are at risk. Waris notes that in New York City alone there are around 40,000 victims of FGM.
The article that appeared in the Marie Claire magazine in 1997, was the first time Waris had spoken publicly about the childhood ordeal that was inflicted upon her. When the magazine hit the shelves, the United Nations Population Fund invited her to join its fight to stop female circumcision.
Waris travels extensively and has done hundreds of interviews on FGM over the years. She gladly accepted an interview with Woman, eager to shine the spotlight on an issue that is affecting countless women and girls this minute.
"Education is key. As an example, in my country Somalia, only 7 per cent of the girls have access to school. Even if there are schools, the parents prefer to marry them in a young age, between 8 and 13, so they never get the chance to go and get education. They marry them young in order to protect them from being raped before the marriage. The second thing is that women in those societies have no status. You can buy them, you can beat them, you can abuse them, you can dismiss them, they have no rights. To improve the status, women need their own jobs and income. Therefore we need investments to create jobs for women," says Waris.
"I'm campaigning against FGM since 15 years. I did more than 3,000 single interviews and hosted on all major TV shows. First I worked as a special UN ambassador, and then I founded my own foundation, www.desertflowerfoundation.org. We initiated many campaigns in Africa and in Europe, because FGM is widespread also in Europe and North America, as immigrants bring this harmful tradition with them."
Waris cannot say for certain how old she is, neither she nor her mother knows the year in which she was born. As the daughter of nomadic camel herders, her family took note of seasons, not years. But she suspects she was around five when her parents sought out a gypsy woman to perform the circumcision on their daughter. For some societies, FGM is considered a good investment. Without female circumsion, young women would be shunned, considered immoral and would not make it onto the marriage market.
As the old woman hired to perform Waris's circumcision fished a bloodied razor from her pocket, Waris was blindfolded and given a tree root to bite down on. Nothing could have prepared her for what followed.
"The next thing I felt was my flesh being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The feeling was indescribable. I didn't move, telling myself the more I did, the longer the torture would take. Unfortunately, my legs began to quiver and shake uncontrollably of their own accord. And I prayed, please God let it be over quickly. Soon it was because I passed out," Waris wrote in her 1998 international bestseller, Desert Flower.
The gypsy woman used thorns from an acacia tree to puncture holes in her skin, then poked a white thread to sew her up. The only opening the old woman left for the child to urinate was a tiny hole, the size of a diameter. As was the custom, a tiny hut was prepared under a tree where Waris was to recuperate alone with her feet bound together, for a few weeks. When she first relieved herself, the pain was so intense, she felt as if her body was being ravaged by acid.
Her parents had gone through perhaps the greatest expense to have their daughter circumcised, but as Waris lay under the night's sky, writhing in pain, her body racked with fever, she knew that the butchering she suffered through was not worth it. At her young age, she didn't even understand what sex was. For her, religion and culture could not excuse what she and other girls had been put through.
"I was a little child and as you can imagine, it was the worse experience a woman can go through. I still suffer physically and mentally from that trauma and I've got flashbacks and nightmares," she explains to Woman.
Waris was around 13 when she was introduced to a man whom her father announced would be her husband. Waris inspected the man from head to toe. In disbelief she took in the sight of his long white beard and the cane he used. That same day, she was determined that like her older sister who ran away from an arranged marriage, she too, had no other choice than to leave her family behind. But it would be her own mother who would stir Waris from sleep and urge her to leave under the cover of darkness. Alone, scared and not knowing where she was going, Waris headed for Mogadishu to find her sister. On the way there she escaped being mauled by a lion and was almost raped by the friend of a driver who had picked her up while hitchhiking. In a matter of weeks, she was in Somalia's capital, washing and cleaning and taking care of her sister's baby, to earn her keep.
One day she overheard her uncle who was the newly appointed Somali ambassador to London, telling a friend that he needed to find a servant before he began his four year diplomatic assignment. She had no clue where London was, but it sounded like somewhere far away from Somalia. Waris jumped at the opportunity.
"Please ask him if I could be his maid?" she begged her aunt. After some hesitation, her uncle agreed and arranged her passport. She was off to London where a new life awaited her.
While in London, Waris worked as a maid in her uncle's household. On a routine trip to drop her cousin off at school, she noticed a man staring at her. He would later hand her a business card with the words 'Mike Goss. Photographer' embossed on it. Something told Waris to hold on to the card, but it would be a while before she did anything with it. When her uncle's diplomatic appointment came to an end, Waris remained in London and began working at McDonald's. A fellow Somalian woman prodded her to contact the photographer, whose business card Waris still kept.
From the moment she stepped foot into his studio, her life changed dramatically. Soon she was photographed by some of the world's leading photographers and she appeared in all the high end fashion magazines. She was far from her life in Somalia. She was no longer scrubbing grills, mopping floors and smelling of grease as she did during her shifts at McDonald's. She was a jet-setting model living the high life.
But it was while she was at the height of her career that old wounds began to surface. Her circumcision may have happened when she was five but the small opening the old woman left made urinating tedious and prevented the flow of menstrual blood. The pain that came during menstruation was unbearable. As every menstruation cycle came around, Waris became incapacitated. Afraid of the unknown, Waris neglected to tell doctors about her circumcision, so she was prescribed birth control pills. Then one day during the most severe of menstrual cramps, Waris collapsed, sending a tray with her food and drink crashing to the floor.
The next doctor Waris saw had experience in treating women who were also victims of female circumcision, he offered to perform surgery that would open the hole the woman left. Finally, some relief.
For years, Waris had suffered in silence. As a model travelling the world and meeting new people, she realised she had what so many people in her culture are denied — a voice. In 1997, she made the bold move to quit modelling and began campaigning on behalf of the thousands of girls who become victims of female circumsion every day. Today she sits on the board of the PPR Foundation for Women's Dignity and Rights along with Salma Hayek, Stella McCartney and Gucci's Frida Giannini. Women are living in pain every day because of this barbaric practice, says Waris. She knew she was one of the lucky ones.
One of her sisters died from complications associated with FGM. So many girls bleed to death or contract deadly infections such as HIV and Hepaptitis from tainted blades and needles. Sexual intercourse is also particularly painful. Countless others are forced to contend with other conditions like dysmenorrhoea which according to the Edna Adan University Hospital occurs when the post-infibulation vaginal hole is too small and there is a constant stagnation of menstrual blood and other vaginal excretions causing bacteria to spread in the vaginal and uterine cavities resulting in pelvic inflammations and severe abdominal cramps.
"Ninety-eight per cent of Somali women have become victims of FGM. According to UNICEF, 30 per cent of the girls die after this practice, from blood loss, shock, infection or blood poisoning. Somalia has one of the highest rates of death during labour because the women cannot deliver the baby because the vagina is just a scar. But I see hope, because a lot of young Somali girls oppose this cruel practice and refuse to harm their own daughters. They know that FGM has nothing to do with religion, culture or tradition. It is just the most cynical form of child abuse. A crime on innocent girls," says Waris.
Remaining silent was not an option for Waris, neither is losing the up-hill battle to stop FGM.
"It has to be won. More than 150 million women are affected by this crime and millions of girls become victims every year. There should be no place for this torture in the 21st century," stresses Waris.