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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lifting the veil of silence around genital mutilation

August 3, 2010
By Stephanie Bunbury -

Liya Kebede as the young Waris Dirie in Desert Flower.
Liya Kebede as the young Waris Dirie in Desert Flower

Waris Dirie felt she owed it to fellow victims to talk about a private and painful subject, writes Stephanie Bunbury.
IT'S a Cinderella story if ever there was one, the rise and rise of a goat-herding Somalian girl who, at 13, runs away across the desert to escape a forced marriage, gets to London, is spotted working in McDonald's by a fashion photographer and becomes a supermodel. Oh, the glamour, darling! On the way up, she has to learn to wear high heels, to be comfortable stripping off, to negotiate rent and visas and modelling contracts and discos. No wonder Elton John was interested in buying Waris Dirie's story. It had all the elements of another Billy Elliot.
For Dirie, however, her journey from rags to riches was half of that story - and not the important half. Dirie is now 45. For the past 20 years she has campaigned relentlessly against the common African practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or ''cutting'': the agonising, brutal, often fatal practice of mutilating, and often then sewing, up young girls' genitalia in readiness for marriage.
Waris Dirie had been ''cut''. ''As women, fellow to one another, we have a responsibility,'' she says. ''I thought, 'Nobody is doing anything about this thing that has stayed much longer than I expected; this is not something that is going to go away tomorrow', and I thought, 'Nobody knows better than me, so what are you waiting for?' Because, clearly, that child is waiting for you!''
In an interview she gave to Marie Claire, she revealed what she had endured. From that moment, her fame was merely a springboard. There was an immediate, tidal response. Dirie was asked to address the United Nations, where Kofi Annan appointed her as a special ambassador; in 1997, she published an autobiography Desert Flower. It has sold 11 million copies worldwide and is now a film.
''Be prepared,'' the PR man whispers before Dirie comes in. ''She's a handful. She's not some quiet woman in a veil, you know. She is that girl who walked alone across the desert for days 'til her feet bled.'' How right he is. Dirie's English is random, but she has certainly mastered all available swear words. She says exactly what she thinks. She didn't sell her story to Elton John, she says, because ''I didn't feel him''.
Instead she gave it to Sherry Hormann, a German director who promised her two things: that the film would be an entertainment, not ''an arthouse film about FGM'' and that she would not skirt around the topic that, for her, made her story worth telling. ''If you stop the story where she's a top model, if that is your story outline, she will reject it,'' says Hormann. ''If you say, 'A top model goes public and talks about FGM', she will listen.''
Dirie is played convincingly in the film by Liya Kebede, a very successful model from Ethiopia and a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation on maternal health. Her background was entirely different, however; her interest in fashion started at the French school in Addis Ababa. ''I knew of girls being cut, but it was never close to me,'' she says. ''You know of it but you don't know of it, what it means.''
It can't be easy, she says, to talk about something so intimate. ''It is one thing to go through it personally, having to deal with the issue every day of your life - physically, I mean - but then it's a whole other thing when she decided to tell the whole world about it. Now she has to talk about it every day of her life. I find that courageous because it's not just an issue; it's not just a noble cause, it is something that happened to her and it is very private.''
It's true, says Dirie, that she was torn about making that commitment, but the mere mention of privacy has her spitting like a cobra. The idea that things are too private to mention is, after all, what keeps them shrouded in silence. ''You've got a vagina, I've got a vagina, every man in the world knows you have got one, like he's got a prick and an arse!'' she snaps. ''There is nothing to be ashamed [of], that it should not be discussed because it is private! But then it is private and should not be touched - that is the point. And it's not just my world, it's everywhere.''
She watched the film of her life alone in a specially rented cinema. Afterwards, she held Hormann for a long time, then went to cry in the toilet. It is the entertainment she asked for. Juliet Stevenson makes a wonderfully grasping models' agent, while Meera Syal does a fine comic turn as an Indian landlady. But, Dirie says, she doesn't think she will be able to watch it again.
''I know I am one of the lucky ones, really and truly one of the blessed,'' she says. ''Am I angry in myself at what has happened to me? No, I'm sad about it. Can I do anything about that? No, I can't.
''But I'm sad this ignorance is still happening. I know the world knows it's wrong. If I'm angry, I'm angry with those who have the knowledge to change something and are not changing it.''