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Waris Dirie

#womenshistoryProfilesMarch 11, 2022

Somali activist Waris Dirie began learning about the different forms of commodification of girls’ and women’s bodies at a very young age. Her fierce advoacy for women’s right to bodily autonomy stems from her own harrowning experience in childhood with the cultural practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Today, she is devoted to helping eradicate the practice of FGM worldwide.of five. Even then, she felt “that FGM is something very wrong — and I swore to myself that one day I would fight against this bad practice. I just didn’t know how yet.” That fighting spirit would show itself again, when she ran away at the age of 13, trekking across the Somali desert, to avoid an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather. A chance meeting with a photographer in London led to a successful modeling career, and even an acting job as a Bond Girl in The Living Daylights

Dirie didn’t speak about her FGM for years, but in 1997 she co-authored an autobiographical account of her experience, Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad (1998). It quickly became an international bestseller. In it, she reflects: “I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple,” she wrote. “My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them?”

Since then, she has campaigned extensively to call attention to the practice of FGM — and help end it. She founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna to help raise awareness about FGM and help those affected by it. The foundation helped launch treatment centers in Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Paris to provide care to FGM victims. Most recently, her foundation sponsored educational initiatives in the Sierra Leone that aim to protect girls from FGM.

In an interview, Dirie shared that “Waris” is Somali for “desert flower.” “I think it fits me because I have survived through a lot in my lifetime, and this flower is well known for that. It can sustain in the mountain and the desert. It can survive and bloom at the same time.”

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