Waris Dirie: Somalian fashion model and women's rights activist
Waris Dirie is a Somalian fashion model, author and women's rights activist known for her efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM).
Dirie was born into a large nomadic family near Somalia's border with Ethiopia and was one of twelve children. During her childhood, she spent most of her time tending to the family's herd and trying to secure enough food and water for survival. At the age of 13, she left her home to avoid an arranged marriage with a much older man. She embarked on a dangerous and arduous journey through the desert to Mogadishu. From there, she eventually made her way to London, where she worked as a maid for an uncle serving as an ambassador. When her uncle's term ended, Dirie chose to remain in London illegally. Despite being illiterate, she managed to find work in the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant and a room at a YMCA facility. She also took classes to learn to read and write in English.
Despite undergoing FGM at the age of five, Dirie was able to overcome both personal and cultural obstacles to speak openly about it in a magazine interview in 1996.
When Dirie was 18 years old in 1983, she was approached by a woman on the street who suggested that she consider modelling. This woman directed her to the British photographer Terence Donovan, who took photographs that launched Dirie's modelling career. In 1987, Dirie was featured on the cover of the exclusive Pirelli Calendar, produced by the multinational holding company Pirelli & C. SpA. She also appeared in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. Dirie modelled on the runways of major cities such as Paris, Milan, and New York. She was also featured in advertising campaigns for top beauty brands like Revlon and Chanel and appeared in leading fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamour, and Vogue. In 1995, the BBC produced a documentary called A Nomad in New York, which chronicled Dirie's modelling career.
Despite undergoing FGM at the age of five, Dirie was able to overcome both personal and cultural obstacles to speak openly about it in a magazine interview in 1996. As a celebrity, Dirie's openness about the issue helped to bring it to the public's attention. In 1997, she was appointed the United Nations Population Fund's special ambassador for eliminating FGM. In this role, Dirie travelled extensively and spoke out against the practice, working to prevent future generations of women from experiencing the same suffering that she had. The World Health Organization estimated that over 130 million girls and women had undergone FGM by the late 1990s. Although FGM was also performed in the Middle East and Asia, it was most prevalent in Africa, with an estimated 98 per cent of women in Somalia have undergone the procedure.
Dirie experienced the most severe form of FGM, infibulation, which involves the removal of all or part of the external genitalia and the stitching up of the vagina, leaving only a tiny and often inadequate opening for the passage of bodily fluids. Dirie's procedure was performed without anaesthesia and under unsanitary conditions, resulting in excruciating pain and both short- and long-term complications. In her autobiography, Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad (1998), Dirie recounted her experience with FGM and her remarkable transformation from a nomad to a fashion model.
Around the turn of the century, Dirie shifted her focus from modelling to activism. In 2001, she established the Desert Dawn Foundation to gather funds for Somalian clinics and schools, and in 2002, she founded the Waris Dirie Foundation to campaign for the eradication of FGM. In 2010, the Waris Dirie Foundation was renamed the Desert Flower Foundation, which sponsored projects like Save a Little Desert Flower. During the 2010s, the foundation set up medical centres in Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, and Amsterdam to provide treatment for FGM survivors.
Dirie wrote several other books, such as Desert Dawn (2002), which documents her journey back to Somalia, and Desert Children (2005), which imparts knowledge about FGM. Her tireless activism garnered many honours, such as the Women's World Award from former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev (2004) and membership in the Legion of Honour, France's highest order of merit, bestowed by French Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy (2007). In 2009, she co-founded the PPR Corporate Foundation for Women's Dignity and Rights. Her autobiography, Desert Flower, was adapted into a film in 2009, and a musical with the same name debuted at Theater St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 2020.