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|Exclusive Interview with the Former Supermodel: Waris Dirie|
|Written by Patricia Turnier|
|Sunday, 18 March 2012 16:57|
In 1965, Waris Dirie (in Somali: Waris Diiriye) was born in Gallacaio desert, Somalia. Her first name means in Somali Desert Flower. The daughter of Somalian nomads, Waris Dirie fled her native country at the age of 13 to escape an arranged marriage with a 60-year-old man. After fleeing Somalia, she ended up in London working as a housemaid. She was regularly beaten and practically kept as a slave with an illegal status at some point. In England, she was spotted by well-known British fashion photographer Terence Donovan. It was a serendipitous moment which would determine a great future. Waris Dirie became a supermodel. This sounds like a Cinderella story.
Waris Dirie worked for these brands: André Courrèges, Chanel 'Allure' fragrance, Express Jeans, H&M, Levi's, L'Oréal, Oil of Olay, Prescriptives make up, Revlon and so on. She did many fashion shows, such as “Ready to wear – Spring/Summer 1996 (John Galliano, Ralph Lauren”, “Ready to wear – Autumn/Winter 2000 (Xuly Bet)”. She did the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. She also appeared in prominent magazines like Elle, Glamour, Vogue and Marie Claire. Her modeling career has been showcased in the 1995 BBC documentary A Nomad in New York. We often hear supermodels say that their career was not planned. Nothing from Waris Dirie’s upbringing could have predicted the future that she had. So, much like several other supermodels, it wasn’t her intention to be in the fashion business.
Waris Dirie is a former supermodel who is multi-faceted. She is a mother, an authoress, actress1 and human rights activist. In 2002, she created the Waris Dirie Foundation (now called the Desert Flower Foundation) and continues to fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) across the world. In January 2009 the PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights’, an organization was founded by French tycoon François-Henri Pinault (CEO of PPR) and his wife, Hollywood actress Salma Hayek. Waris Dirie became a founding member of PPR with other people and she is one of the members of the board.
Since 2002 Waris Dirie and the Desert Flower Foundation team have given numerous lectures and presentations in the fight against FGM in schools, universities, parliaments, at press conferences, human rights seminars, and conferences on violence against women. They have also made presentations to NGOs in Africa, Europe and the US. Since 2005, Waris Dirie and the Desert Flower Foundation have provided a unique online service for victims of FGM, girls threatened by FGM and people who endeavor to become active in the fight against FGM. Furthermore, they support victims directly and offer a “helpdesk” for victims. They also have an information service for activists and supporters as well as the international press. More than 60,000 people from around the world have taken advantage of this unique service. In Dirie’s battle against FGM, she has met many European leaders; she spoke in front of members of parliament and the European Union. Among well-known personalities, it is important to note that the late Katoucha was another former supermodel who fought against FGM and likewise the departed Muta Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Waris Dirie has received many prestigious prizes and awards for her work and books, like the “Women’s World Award” presented by President Mikhail Gorbachev (2004), the “Bishop Oscar Romero Award” given by the Catholic Church (2005), the “Woman of the Year Award” by Glamour Magazine (2000), the “Africa Award” of the German government (1999), as well as the “Corinne Award” by the umbrella association of the German bookselling trade (2002). Waris Dirie became the first woman nominated for “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2005. In 2007 French President Nicolas Sarkozy presented her with the “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur”.
Waris Dirie has authored several books which gained a lot of success internationally. They have been translated into Dutch, German, French, Italian, Greek, Swedish, Slovene, Croatian, etc. In 2010 Waris Dirie published her latest book Black Woman, White Country (Droemer Knaur, Munich). In 1997, Harper Collins published her autobiography “Desert Flower”. The book quickly became an international bestseller. “Desert Flower” has been published in 65 licensed editions. It was number 1 on the bestseller lists in many countries and has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. In 2009, the Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede starred in the film-adaption of this bestselling autobiography. The movie Desert Flower was directed by Sherry Hormann. Waris Dirie served as associate producer for the film. The film is from Oscar- Winning producer Peter Herrmann. The movie recounts Dirie's childhood in Somalia, her rise to stardom and subsequent awareness campaign against female circumcision. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and received a standing ovation. It was also screened in Africa and around the world: the movie has since been released in more than 30 countries, including the US, France, Spain, Greece, Brazil, Netherlands, South Korea, Australia and Japan. The film has been translated into several languages, including French and German.
The bright lights and the glamour life never really appealed to Waris Dirie. Instead, she chose to make the most of her international status to publicly reveal the female circumcision that she suffered at the age of 5, in the name of tradition. The former supermodel lost her sister, Haleno from FGM and a cousin. Hence, the most important battle for Waris Dirie is to restore women’s dignity.
The story of Waris Dirie is inspirational in many ways as illustrated in her resilience and boldness. She has been able to overcome her ordeal regarding the cruel and traumatic experience of circumcision during her childhood. For years she did not speak a word of English while she lived in London; she was illiterate. However, with hard work and determination she has been able to transcend this problem (by taking classes in English) by becoming a worldwide renowned author.
To summarize, from the UN to the EU, and through her own foundation, Waris Dirie isn't afraid to make her feelings known, a real soldier, philanthropist and a symbol for justice to millions of women. She continues to denounce the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) that affects millions of women throughout the world. Circa 150 million women are traumatized by FGM according to the Institut national des études démographiques de Paris2 (INED) . At least 500,000 girls are affected in Europe and more young girls become victims of this criminal practice every day. Some girls or women die from this procedure which is done often without anesthesia. Many of these victims suffer throughout their entire life from the physical and psychological consequences of these practices. The World Health Organization estimated that FGM which is mostly performed in more than 28 African countries and also in the Middle East, Asia. Waris Dirie continues to tell her life story. She is the first international celebrity to break the silence surrounding this terrible practice. Thus, she has vanquished personal and cultural barriers. Mega Diversities had the pleasure to interview Mrs. Waris Dirie this winter. Here she talks mainly about her involvement in her foundation and the state of the combat against FGM.
P.T. Talk to our worldwide readers about the mission of your foundation (created in 2002), its main accomplishments and its goals for 2012 (especially regarding the new project TOGETHER FOR AFRICAN WOMEN). In addition, can you share with us one the most uplifting initiatives your foundation has engaged in for a girl or a woman?
W.D. I started the Desert Flower Foundation (based in Vienna, Austria) with the main goal of raising awareness about FGM around the world. According to the United Nations, more than 6000 girls are subjected to this cruel and inhuman ritual every day. More than 2000 girls die daily after the procedure from trauma, infections and blood poisoning. Many females die when giving birth to their first child as a consequence of this terrible and horrific tradition based on superstition in some part of the world.
When I first started talking about FGM, it was hardly known in the western world, and many countries where it was practiced refused to address the issue, let alone enact laws to prohibit FGM. Many of these things have changed by now, numerous states have adopted laws and programs against FGM and in the western world, it is much more known.
The Desert Flower Foundation offers an international media service. Since 2002, more than 3000 interviews and stories on the topic have been initiated by myself and our foundation around the world. In 2011, we started working on projects that have a broader approach: I believe that in order to effectively combat FGM, we need to work on empowering women in every aspect of their lives. This is what the project "Together for African Women" focuses on. We work on creating fairly-paid and sustainable jobs in East Africa because we believe that through a steady and reliable income, women will gain independence. Therefore, they will have the freedom to decide what to do with their bodies and - even more importantly - with the bodies of their daughters.
To finish, I would like to say that my foundation raises money for Somalia to invest in clinics and schools. People can find more information about the work of the foundation and details of current campaigns at www.waris-dirie-foundation.com.
P.T. You declared to the media that you were convinced that the power of information and education are the greatest weapons to combat FGM. Can you tell us what your foundation did in that sense throughout the years?
W.D. Education and information are vital. Women and men in countries that practice FGM need to know the effects, both physically and emotionally, that FGM has on their daughters. But I am also convinced that information alone will not be enough to eradicate this practice, simply because poverty plays such an important role in its persistence. Women who have to fight for the survival of their families every day will be much less likely to risk not being able to marry their daughters if they are not mutilated. This is where projects such as "Together for African Women" come into the picture.
P.T. You said to the media that the issue of FGM is in the hands of politicians throughout the world. You added that this problem doesn’t concern an individual female but the collectivity. Many women continue to suffer from it worldwide. What can people of both genders, including the politicians, do to fight FGM worldwide?
W.D. They can help change the perception of women in many societies. This concerns the media, since it is the media that portrays women in a certain way. It also concerns society as a whole: the things we expect of women and the way we treat them. Only when women will be respected and treated as equals by men can FGM be eradicated. And this is something we can all contribute to through our behavior and the decisions we make. I want to add that I am glad to see some improvement since 2002. 16 African countries have banned FGM including Kenya, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin as a consequence of the strong pressure by the international community. We need to continue this collective fight against FGM worldwide.
P.T. What needs to be done for more countries to recognize FGM as grounds for granting asylum?
W.D. This is a difficult issue, simply because so many women are affected by FGM worldwide. Additionally, changing the laws in the recipient countries is not a solution to the problem in the countries where FGM is practiced. What really needs to change is the situation there; we need to address the root causes of the problem, such as poverty and inequality, instead of trying to deal with its consequences.
P.T. What message do you have for people who think that they should not get involved in combating FGM because for them it would go against traditional customs?
W.D. FGM is a crime and it is about misogyny. It is a breach of the most basic human rights and it is also a crime that is committed against children. I do not see how any of these things could qualify as "traditions", "religion" or anything that is worth respecting or protecting.
P.T. What did it mean to you when were appointed as a UN Advocate by Kofi Annan (in 1997) for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation?
W.D. It was a great honor and recognition both of my work and the importance of speaking out against FGM in general. However, for administering actual campaigns and setting up projects, it was important to me to start my own foundation, which I did in 2002. At the Desert Flower Foundation, I know exactly what is happening in every aspect of our work and I am much more flexible to adapt programs or priorities if necessary.
P.T. Over the last five years, have you observed a decrease of FGM and are more people being prosecuted for engaging in that practice in the most affected countries?
W.D. There have been some cases of prosecution, for instance in Egypt and in Kenya. Moreover, there is generally more attention being paid to the problem. For a very long time, it was not even possible to address the problem. Now many politicians or wives of high officials engage in projects against FGM, which is a very good sign and a powerful statement.
In countries where FGM is mainly a problem through migration, new laws have been adopted and there have been lawsuits in several European countries such as France, Sweden, Spain or Italy.
P.T. How was the movie Desert Flower (based on your autobiography) received in your homeland, Somalia and has it pressured the government to make changes especially on the legal level regarding FGM?
W.D. As you know, there is currently no functional government, let alone administrative structure in Somalia. It is therefore very difficult to exercise any form of political influence. Puntland, the area where I was born and raised, have recently enacted laws against FGM. This makes me very joyous.
In some other countries, such as in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, the movie was very well received. It was a big success which made me very happy. I even travelled to Addis Ababa to attend the premiere of the movie with my entire family. This was a wonderful experience.
P.T. What did you think of the performance of the Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede in 2010 playing yourself in the movie Desert Flower?
W.D. I think she did a great job and certainly helped make the movie the success it was! Liya Kebede was awarded “Best Young Talent of the Year” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and I am happy for her.
P.T. You have been involved in the fashion industry for several years. What advice do you have for young girls (of all origins) who wish to follow in your footsteps by becoming supermodels with longevity?
W.D. I would advise them to follow their dreams. If modeling is what they really want to do because they believe it will fulfill their lives and make them happy, then it is worth trying. But, they always have to remember that it is a very tough industry. You need to have a thick skin and be well surrounded. It is important to mention that few women succeed and make it to the top. I would also tell them to get first a good education because knowledge is the single most important value that no one can ever take from them.
P.T. Thank you so much for this interview. It was an honor to contact you!
Waris Dirie in brief:
Occupation: model, author, actress, UN Special Ambassador (1997–2003)
Title: Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur
• Desert Flower (1998)
• Desert Dawn (2004)
• Desert Children (2005)
• Letter to my mother (2007)
• Schwarze Frau, weißes Land (Black Woman, White Country) (2010)
The Waris Dirie Manifesto:
I have very clear ideas of what I want to achieve in my fight against Genital Mutilation in Europe.
Here are my fifteen goals:
• Everyone in Europe to recognise genital mutilation as a problem common to all countries and one we can no longer shut our eyes to
• Every religious community to take a clear stand against the practice of genital mutilation
• Every FGM victim needing help to the help she needs • All European governments to issue regulations to protect girls from genital mutilation – in Europe and abroad
• All European governments to pass legislation enabling perpetrators and their accomplices to be brought to justice • It to be mandatory for every incident that comes to light of mutilation of a minor to be reported for prosecution
• All European countries to regard genital mutilation as equal to political persecution and as grounds for asylum
• Everyone to enlightened about the status of genital mutilation: not culture, but torture
• All genital mutilation victims at last to be treated with sensitivity and respect
• All health workers to become well informed about FGM and to know how to help victims • All victims, where it is their wish, to have free access to surgery to counteract the damage and to receive psychological counselling
• Genital mutilation to be a subject that people can and will openly discuss
• All the groups working to combat FGM to come together and agree on their policy and strategies
• All organisations working to combat FGM to have sufficient funding to be able to function efficiently
• Everyone in Europe to put into action my dream of an end to genital mutilation
Source: Desert Children by Waris Dirie
Selected Women’s Organisations for FGM victims:
African Women’s Organisation in Vienna
Afrikanische Franuenorganisation in Wien
• advice centre (funded by the city of Vienna)
• preventive work, surveys commissioned for the EU
Türkenstr. 3 A-1090 WIEN
Tel.: +43-1-310 51 45
Amnesty for women – working group for Austria
AG Frauen amnesty international Österreich
• arranges advice and help with asylum applications
Moeringgasse 10/1 A-1150 Wien
Tel.: +43-1-780 08 www.amnesty.at/ag-frauen
Terre des Femmes
Women’s organisation with an anti-FGM campaign
• Publicity campaigns
• Teaching materials for schools and health workers
• Information for immigrant women
PO BOX 2565
Tel.: +49-7071-797 30
Fax: +49-7071-7973 22
DAFNEP (Deutsch-Afrikanisches Frauen-NetzerkProjekt)
• Medical advice and education campaigns for African women in Berlin
Tel.: +43-30-825 57 65
And + 49-30-89 72 99 70
Public Health Department, Frankfurt
• Advice centre for African women
• A Kenyan health worker employed by the department advises men and women from Africa on general health questions, HIV/AIDS and FGM
D-60311 Frankfurt am Main
Tel.: +48-69-21 24 52 41
CAMS- Commission pour l’Abolition des Mutilations Sexuelles
• Legal representation in court for minors, filing parallel suits
• Raising public awareness
President: Linda Weil-Curiel
6, Place St. Germain-des-Près
Tel. : +33-1-45 49 04 00
Amnesty International Secretariat
Human Rights organisation working on FGM since 1995 worldwide.
1, Easton Street
London WC1X 8DJ
Tel.: +44-20-74 13 55 00
Fax: +44-20-79 56 11 57
Black Women’s Health and Family Organisation
• Works with African women, particularly towards prevention of FGM
• Advice on social issues
1st Floor, 82 Russia Lane
London E2 9LU
Tel.: +44-208 980 3503
Women Living under Muslim Law
International solidarity network for women whose lives are governed or affected by laws which are actually or purportedly derived from Islam.
International Coordination Office
PO BOX 28445
London N10 5NZ
Source: Desert Children by Waris Dirie
AWARDS AND HONORS
The World Demographic Association nominated her as the first woman for the “Prix des Générations”.
In 2008 the former supermodel became the first woman awarded the “Martin Buber Gold Medal” by the Martin Buber Foundation.
In 2009, Waris Dirie received the “My Way Award”, following Nelson Mandela in 2008. She was also the first recipient of the “HOPE Award” for her achievements as a human rights activist.
The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center of Georgetown University named Waris Dirie one of “500 most influential people of the Muslim world”. In the US Waris Dirie was listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the ‘Ten most important women of the year’.
In 2010 the Waris Dirie together with Nobel Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi received the “Gold Medal of the President from the Republic of Italy” by the Piu Manzu Center in Rimini/Italy.
In 2010, the former supermodel was appointed “Ambassador for Peace and Security in Africa” by the African Union. Her personal goal is to raise more awareness regarding the situation in her country of birth, Somalia and the ongoing prejudices against women in Africa.
“We can give no more excuses for [female genital mutilation]. This is a pure crime against a child. And we are doing it ... not God or nature. (2007 U.N. press conference)”
"Female Genital Mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition or religion. It is a torture and a crime, which needs to be fought against"
“Laws are important. But they can only be effective if the people know about the particular laws”
“I'm deeply convinced that information and education are our strongest weapons to fight FGM”
“Africa has everything it needs, from natural resources to a diverse workforce. Yet, the continent remains dependent on donations that often undermine the development of a functioning market. Africa needs investments that create qualified jobs. And Africa has to realize that peace is a precondition for any investment and thus growth and economic posterity. I want to set an example for young Africans and show them that migration is not the way to happiness and wealth. I want them to stay in Africa and build up their own countries!”
Other interesting links:
1 For instance, she was a Bond girl side by side with Timothy Dalton in "The Living Daylights"
2 The literal translation: The National Institute for demographic studies of Paris