Thursday, February 29, 2024

Waris Dirie: Flower of the Desert

The story of a Somali model and actress turned author and human rights activist fighting back against the inhumane sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural ritual of female genital mutilation. Discover her hardships in growing and blooming in a harsh environment.

First published on Passions, Vol. 46, this article has been repurposed for the digital world – exclusive only on VOICE OF ASIA.

Imagine being a young teenager, with your whole life ahead of you, head brimming with dreams, hopes and aspirations for the future – and then having your world shattered by being forced into a marriage to a man old enough to be your father. Now imagine being told that your genitalia, a natural, God-given anatomical feature, is dirty, and would make you promiscuous. Hence it would have to be chopped off. Imagine being dragged and held down by your own relatives, kicking and screaming in protest, as all of your external genitalia are cut off, and the remaining parts of the outer lips are sewn together, leaving just a small hole for menstruation and urination. This is female genital mutilation in its most severe form.

In a cultural ritual in sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of the Middle East, this horrifying procedure is usually carried out using a knife or razor blade without any anaesthesia and under catastrophic hygienic conditions. It is estimated that around 125 million girls have undergone this traumatic procedure, and as per statistics available in 2013, almost half the girls had it inflicted on them before the age of five! This practice is deeply rooted in ill-formed and misplaced ideals of purity and modesty, in an attempt to control a women’s sexuality, with the underlying belief that women should not enjoy the pleasures of intercourse.

Born in Somalia, she was forced to flee her home to London at the tender age of 13, to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man. She learnt English in the evenings, and supported herself by working at McDonald’s, was discovered by a photographer and then, there was no stopping her as she modelled for campaigns of top brands such as Chanel, Levi’s and L’Oreal. Ten years later, at the peak of her modelling career, she gave it all up to become the United Nations ambassador for the abolition of female genital mutilation, to help young girls who have no voice in a cruel world.

In 2002, she founded Desert Flower – an organisation to raise awareness of female genital mutilation in Vienna, Austria. She followed this up in 2009, by co-founding the PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights. A movie based on her autobiography was released the same year, and won critical acclaim and accolades. Waris Dirie also raises money for schools and clinics in Somalia, through another one of her initiatives – the Desert Dawn Foundation.

Today, she continues her fight against the abominable practice of female genital mutilation, raising awareness and advocating abolishment. Women like her are changing the blossoming lives of young girls world-wide – one precious flower at a time. It takes incredible sacrifice to give up fame, fortune and comfort to fight another woman’s cause, but Waris Dirie, has proved that the flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful flower of them all.

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