We cannot really blame people for getting embittered by their harrowing experiences. Isn’t it that most heinous crime perpetrators have their own sad backstory to tell, which eventually led to their twisted morals? It’s no excuse for harming others or causing havoc, but can we blame them for what pain and suffering turned them into? The point is it’s easy to become one bad apple when the going gets tough.
But what do we make of people who manage to become a catalyst for positive change and an agent of hope albeit their tough past? We can argue about what name to call them, but we should all agree that there aren’t many of their kind on this planet. If that weren’t the case, then this place should have become a better world over the course of time, but since what’s happening now is otherwise then let’s admit that only very few people who go through strife do not turn into a monster.
Waris Dirie’s Inspiring Story
One look at Waris Dirie is likely to elicit a feeling of admiration. For one, she’s one lovely lady naturally blessed with a knockout figure. In fact, she made a living out of cat–walking on runways and appearing in magazines. Obviously, her physical attributes are meant for the stage and camera.
But like other people, Waris’ appearance is not all there is to her. Before she walked on stilettoes and lived a life under the spotlight, Waris walked the steamy deserts of Somalia on worn sandals. Her clothes were far from fancy and her face was always greasy with sweat.
Waris Dirie belonged to a group of Somali nomads who had no home to settle in. They went wherever fate took them. They didn’t belong to any nation; hence nobody cared whatever happens to them. To say that it was a tough life would be an understatement.
For homes, Waris’ people made portable huts, which they could easily pitch and uproot. It was a life without direction. But all that was bearable for Waris because she belonged to a family. She had a caring mother and a responsible father. She had adorable siblings whom she loved. She had goats and sheep to milk and shepherd. It was not an ideal life, but she could not ask for more.
If there was one thing that bothered Waris, it would be her community’s bizarre way of treating women. They had to marry in order to be considered productive citizens. Unless they get a husband, they would remain useless in the tribe regardless of the many other things they could still possibly do as a single woman. Women are considered dirty and sinful. They had this ancient belief that if left unrestrained, women are likely to dishonor their husband or resist their supremacy. In order to avoid that, they resort to a horrible act that was believed to have started 4,000 years ago—female genital mutilation or FGM.
It was not called FGM in their vocabulary simply because to them, no mutilation was taking place. On the contrary, they believe that they were doing the girls a favor by making them unsusceptible to worldly desires.
Waris was no different from the other women in their family. She was “circumcised” when she was only three or five years old. If she only knew her birthday, she would have certainly remembered the exact age her womanhood was totally removed and sealed, leaving only one tiny hole for urine to pass through.
She was too young to understand, and nobody bothered to enlighten her about the matter. People just went along with it in the name of tradition. When Waris got out from the hole she used to call home, she was astonished by how different the outside world was. Women behaved differently and they were treated better. Almost everyone could read and write, even very young children. It was a novelty to Waris who never had any semblance of education save the practical skills she had to learn in order to become a good shepherd.
That was when Waris began to live. She realized how she was denied a normal life by a crippling childhood incident. Prior to understanding what sex means, Waris’ genital organ was removed for good. But her brutal childhood did not stop her. If anything, it motivated her to make something of her life in order to keep other girls from sharing her fate.
Modeling gave her that break. Once she’s famous enough to make headlines, Waris told the world about her secret. She was afraid, but she thought doing so was worth the humiliation. If the only way to get FGM on top of the list of practices that need to be abolished is get her story out in the open, then she better do it while she’s still famous.
That is the kind of spirit Waris Dirie has. Her story is worth talking about. She didn’t care if telling the world her secret would result in losing her high–paying job. All she cared about was the difference her testimony would make to the lives of millions of children who are candidates for FGM.
It’s amazing how she has been willing to give up everything just to get her message across. One of the many names we could probably ascribe to her is “hero.” She needed no cape to become superhuman. She just had to be Waris Dirie—a victim turned spokesperson.
Waris Dirie’s Early Biography
Waris Dirie belonged to a tribe of Somali herdsmen. They were desert nomads who went wherever there was food and water for their cattle. According to her earliest recollection, she was born sometime in 1965. She has no idea when exactly. They did not have any form of government and registration was a thing of the future.
Waris’ mother was not born a nomad. Her family was from Mogadishu, and she belonged to an affluent and influential clan. Since her father was a nomad and had nothing to offer her mother, their relationship was fervently opposed by the latter’s family. As a result, her mother ran away with her father.
It was not hard to understand why she did. Waris’ father was a handsome man, standing over six feet tall. Her mother didn’t look bad either. She was stunning, with smooth and silky skin. Being raised in a well–to–do family, Waris’ mother was wise and soft–spoken. Even under their sorry circumstance, her mother maintained her classy look.
When Waris was born, her mother nicknamed her “Avdohol”—a Somali word for small–mouthed. She did not mind growing up in the desert because it was her idea of home. They ran alongside giraffes and kangaroos. Her childhood was full of happy memories, until the day her father saw the gypsy woman.
A gypsy woman is what they call someone who does the circumcision on girls. She had no idea what their qualifications were, but she’s certain that they were not legitimate doctors—they might fall under the “sorceress” category.
When her father told her mother that her time had come, Waris did not know how to react. She was about three to five years old so it was not the age when one can already assess the situation and choose to go against it if she wanted to. To put it simply, Waris’ fate was decided by her parents.
Perhaps it would be best to tell the story of how it was done in Waris’ own account published in Reader’s Digest:
"The night before my circumcision, the family made a special fuss over me and I got extra food at dinner. Mama told me not to drink too much water or milk. I lay awake with excitement, until suddenly she was standing over me, motioning. The sky was still dark. I grabbed my little blanket and sleepily stumbled along after her.
We walked out into the brush. "We'll wait here," Mama said, and we sat on the cold ground. The day was growing lighter; soon I heard the click-click of the gypsy woman's sandals. Then, without my seeing her approach, she was right beside me.
"Sit over there." She motioned toward a flat rock. There was no conversation. She was strictly business.
Mama positioned me on the rock. She sat behind me and pulled my head against her chest, her legs straddling my body. I circled my arms around her thighs. She placed a piece of root from an old tree between my teeth. "Bite on this."
Mama leaned over and whispered, "Try to be a good girl, baby. Be brave for Mama, and it'll go fast."
I peered between my legs and saw the gypsy. The old woman looked at me sternly, a dead look in her eyes, then foraged through an old carpet-bag. She reached inside with her long fingers and fished out a broken razor blade. I saw dried blood on the jagged edge. She spit on it and wiped it on her dress. While she was scrubbing, my world went dark as Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes.
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.
When I woke up, my blindfold was off and I saw the gypsy woman had piled a stack of thorns from an acacia tree next to her. She used these to puncture holes in my skin, then poked a strong white thread through the holes to sew me up. My legs were completely numb, but the pain between them was so intense that I wished I would die.
My memory ends at that instant, until I opened my eyes and the woman was gone. My legs had been tied together with strips of cloth binding me from my ankles to my hips so I couldn't move. I turned my head toward the rock; it was drenched with blood as if an animal had been slaughtered there. Pieces of my flesh lay on top, drying in the sun.
Waves of heat beat down on my face, until my mother and older sister, Aman, dragged me into the shade of a bush while they finished making a shelter for me. This was the tradition; a little hut was prepared under a tree, where I would rest and recuperate alone for the next few weeks.
After hours of waiting, I was dying to relieve myself. I called my sister, who rolled me over on my side and scooped out a little hole in the sand. "Go ahead," she said.
The first drop stung as if my skin were being eaten by acid. After the gypsy sewed me up, the only opening left for urine-and later for menstrual blood-was a minuscule hole the diameter of a matchstick.
As the days dragged on and I lay in my hut, I became infected and ran a high fever. I faded in and out of consciousness. Mama brought me food and water for the next two weeks.
Lying there alone with my legs still tied, I could do nothing but wonder, why? What was it all for? At that age I didn't understand anything about sex. All I knew was that I had been butchered with my mother's permission.
I suffered as a result of my circumcision, but I was lucky. Many girls die from bleeding to death, shock, infection or tetanus. Considering the conditions in which the procedure is performed, it's surprising that any of us survive." (SOURCE: FGM Network)
How she went through that and managed to stay alive was a mystery. And that would not be the first time Waris would escape death.
Almost Married at 13
When she turned 13, Waris had grown into a good–looking teen. She was normal in spite of the traumatic incident that happened many years ago. In a society where a practice as horrifying as female circumcision is openly accepted, there was no reason for Waris not to move on and charge it to experience. It was her rite of passage to adulthood, something that not only her but every woman must go through.
What kept her mind off that nightmare were her siblings and the herd of goats and sheep she was tasked to shepherd. Since they lived on a desert, it was Waris’ responsibility to look for a pasture perfect for grazing. Not only that, while her goats and sheep munch on their grass, Waris must see to it that no predators get near them. The wild was full of beasts—from the relatively harmless hyenas to the more threatening lions. It was an odd job for a girl, let alone a kid. But that was life in Somalia and Waris enjoyed it.
She found a sense of meaning guarding her herd from attackers. It was one of the rare occasions when she felt totally in control. Milk from their goats kept them from getting parched in the middle of the desert. They get their sustenance from Waris’ “pets.”
Her world came crashing down upon hearing the news of her betrothal to Mr. Galool. In exchange of five goats, her father agreed to give his 13–year–old daughter as wife to the 60–year–old man who walked with the help of a cane. Waris was appalled. Unlike her circumcision when she was left without any choice but to obey, she felt gravely insulted by her father’s desperate actuation.
To Waris, marrying the old man was tantamount to a lifetime of misery. That’s not the kind of future she envisioned herself to have. She was not the ambitious type, but she was also no fool to readily surrender her freedom to anyone who first asked for her hand in marriage. Waris made a very painful decision—she decided to leave.
While preparing to go to bed, Waris told her mother about her plan of running away. She was silenced by her mother’s outright dismissal. But while everyone was sound asleep, a gentle tap woke her up. It was her mother gesturing for her to leave. She wanted to go but not so suddenly. But between staying only to be married to a shriveled man or leaving with the hope of returning home as a successful woman, Waris made up her mind.
After hugging her mother tightly while fighting back tears, she sprinted out into the darkness where uncertainty awaited. As she continued with her Reader’s Digest story:
"I didn’t know which direction led to Mogadishu; I just ran. Slowly at first, because I couldn’t see. But as the sky lighted, I was off like a gazelle. I ran for hours.
By midday I’d traveled deep into the red sand. The landscape stretched on to eternity. Hungry, thirsty and tired, I slowed and walked.
As I pondered what was going to happen next, I heard, "Waris … Waris…" My father’s voice echoed all around me! I was frightened. If he caught me, I knew that he would make me, marry.
Even though I had gotten a head start, Papa had tracked me down by following my footprints through the sand. He was close.
I started to run. I looked back and saw him coming over the hill. He spotted me too. Terrified, I ran faster. It was as if we were surfing waves of sand; I flew up one hill, and he glided down the one behind me. On and on we continued for hours, until I realized I hadn’t seen him for some time. He no longer called to me.
I kept running until the sun set, and the night was so black I couldn't see. By this time I was starving and my feet were bleeding. I sat down to rest, and fell asleep under a tree.
In the morning, I opened my eyes to the burning sun. I got up and continued to run. And so it went for days—days marked by hunger, thirst, fear and pain. When it grew too dark to see, I would stop. At midday I’d sit under a tree and take a siesta.
It was during one of these naps that a slight sound woke me. I opened my eyes and was staring into the face of a lion. I tried to stand, but I hadn't eaten in days, so my weak legs wobbled and folded beneath me. I slumped back against the tree that had sheltered me from the merciless African sun. My long journey across the desert had come to an end. I was unafraid, ready to die.
"Come and get me," I said to the lion. "I’m ready."
The big cat stared at me, and my eyes locked on his. He licked his lips and paced back and forth in front of me, elegantly, sensuously. He could crush me in an instant.
Finally he turned and walked away, no doubt deciding that I had so little flesh, I wasn't worth eating.
When I realized the lion was not going to kill me, 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." (SOURCE: FGM Network)
Search for a New Life
She finally arrived in Mogadishu, a city on the Indian Ocean and her mother’s birthplace. She asked around where she could probably find her sister Aman. Like her, Aman also ran away from home when news of her impending marriage reached her. She successfully found her and stayed in Aman’s cramped apartment. Waris helped around the house to return the favor. Aman’s bossiness became too much for Waris to handle so she sought refuge in her Aunt Sahru’s home. Sahru is her mother’s sister and she treated her kindly.
To help with the expenses back home, Waris enlisted her services in a construction company. For the whole month, she endured lifting heavy cement and doing men’s work. When she finally saved 60 dollars, she asked an acquaintance to hand the money to her mother. Unfortunately, the person she entrusted the money with had other plans.
Another opportunity came when her Uncle, another aunt’s husband, was appointed Ambassador to London. She went with him as a servant girl. For four years, Waris faithfully served her Uncle’s family. They treated her in a business–like manner. While her cousins went to exclusive schools, Waris stayed home and remained illiterate.
Every time she got her period, the pain almost killed her. At one time, she fainted prompting her Aunt to send her to see a doctor who prescribed some pills. She did not like the pills’ effect on her body, so she stopped and once her period was back, the pain intensified.
She finally decided to tell the doctor about her secret. Contrary to what she expected, the doctor knowingly told her that if she’s willing, he could operate on her. After a month of thinking things over, she agreed. For the first time in many years since her circumcision, Waris was grateful to urinate normally again. What she saw as a chore before became a piece of cake.
Becoming a Model
One of Waris’ tasks in her Uncle’s estate was walking his youngest child to school. That’s when she met a photographer who referred her to Terence Donovan. After her Uncle’s term ended, she chose to stay in London. She managed to get a job at McDonald’s and learned how to read and write in English at the same time. But after being persuaded to call the man she met at her cousin’s school, Waris found herself smiling at the camera.
Terence sold her pictures to the Pirelli Calendar and she was accepted in a modeling agency. It did not take long before she was given huge assignments, like posing for Vogue magazine or walking the runway.
Going Back to Somalia and Getting Married
When Waris was famous enough, BBC approached her with the idea of making a documentary about her modeling career. She agreed on one condition: that they would help her look for her mother in Somalia. After a rigorous search, she was reunited with her family.
Life for Waris had been normal so far and in 1995, she met Dana Murray, a jazz player. One look at him and she knew he would become her husband. They did marry and had Aleeke on 13 June 1997. Motherhood gave her ambivalent feelings. She was celebrating the birth of his beautiful son, and yet at the back of her mind, she remembered her mother and the millions of girls who had to give birth to their babies with their vagina tightly stitched. It strengthened her resolve to fight against FGM.
Getting Her Story Out in the Open
Modeling was something Waris enjoyed doing, but she had a bigger reason for going after fame. She wanted to be famous enough for her story to matter. Upon meeting Laura Ziv of Marie Claire magazine, Waris knew she had found the perfect moment to get her secret out in the open.
Within hours, millions of people read the Waris Dirie story which had nothing to do with modeling at all. It was about her story in Somalia and how it ruined her life as a woman. Some people were sympathetic, some were too narrow–minded to understand, and some were belligerent.
The people from countries who were led to believe that FGM is the only way to discipline women were scandalized. Waris Dirie, from being a celebrity, became the target of criticism and assassination. None of the male population where FGM was practiced wanted others to know about their women’s perennial issue.
Desert Flower Gets Published
Instead of being afraid, Waris accepted United Nations’ offer to make her Ambassador Against Female Genital Mutilation. Finally, the world heard about FGM from someone who experienced it first–hand. Fueled by the desire to give a more vivid account of the mutilation done on her, she wrote her first book, “Desert Flower.” Her name means “desert flower” in the Somali language, hence the title of the book. It became a bestseller.
Two years later, she founded the Waris Dirie Foundation that aims to abolish the horrible practice in all parts of the world to save millions of children from suffering lifelong pain and loss. Victims of FGM are at risk of kidney problems and genital cysts, even psychological imbalance of some degree. FGM is performed in different countries to children as young as three years old. Because of the unhygienic way it’s done, a number of them don’t survive.
According to The Waris Dirie Story in Reader’s Digest:
The operations are usually performed in primitive circumstances by village women using knives, scissors, even sharp stones. They use no anesthetic. The process ranges in severity. The most minimal damage is cutting away the hood of the clitoris. At the other end of the spectrum is infibulation, which is performed on 80 percent of the women in Somalia, and which prohibits the girl from enjoying sex for the rest of her life. (SOURCE: FGM Network)
Waris’ work concerning the FGM issue has been acknowledged by many organizations, earning her the following accolades: Women's World Award from Mikhail Gorbachev, the Bishop Óscar Romero Award, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from Nicolas Sarkozy, the Prix des Générations from the World Demographic Association, and the Martin Buber Gold Medal from the Euriade Foundation.
Releasing Desert Dawn and Desert Children
Her book “Desert Flower” was followed with two more—“Desert Dawn” and “Desert Children.” After her three–day abduction in Brussels in 2008, Waris got even bolder. There was no stopping her from talking.
In 2010, the book “Desert Flower” was made into a movie. It was nominated at the German Film Awards and won the Audience Award in the Best European Film category at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. In the same year, Waris was appointed Peace Ambassador for the Year of Peace and Security by the African Union.
Waris Dirie who was mutilated and denied the pleasure of being a woman neither got consumed by anger nor by fame. Bitterness and abject poverty turned her into an extremely wonderful person. And as the desert flower beautifies the drab desert of Somalia, Waris Dirie made the world one fine place to live in for the millions of children she saved from mutilation.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- Desert Flower Foundation
- Desert Dawn Foundation
- PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights
- Desert Dawn Foundation
- Zeitz Foundation
- 1987: Played a minor role in The Living Daylights James Bond movie
- 1997: Became UN Ambassador against Female Genital Mutilation
- 1998: Released Desert Flower
- 2000: Named Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine
- 2002: Received Corine Award
- 2002: Founded the Desert Flower Foundation
- 2004: Received Women's World Award from Mikhail Gorbachev
- 2005: Received Bishop Óscar Romero Award
- 2005: Acquired Austrian citizenship
- 2007: Received Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from Nicolas Sarkozy
- 2007: Received Prix des Générations from the World Demographic Association
- 2008: Received the Martin Buber Gold Medal from the Euriade Foundation
- 2009: Converted Desert Flower into a movie
- 2009: Co-founded PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights
- 2010: Desert Flower won the Best Movie in the Bavarian Film Awards in Munich
- 2010: Desert Flower was nominated at the German Film Awards
- 2010: Won the Audience Award in the Best European Film category at the San Sebastián International Film Festival
- 2010: African Union appointed her as Peace Ambassador for the Year of Peace and Security
- 2010: Received the Gold medal of the President of the Republic of Italy