She hasn’t been in front of the lens for 20 years, but Somali model Waris Dirie has once again taken her place at the center of a major fashion campaign to bring attention to the cause of ending female circumcision—better known by those in opposition to the practice as female genital mutilation (FGM).
The ritualistic procedure involves the removal of some or all of a girl or woman’s external genitalia before sewing her shut with only a small hole left behind. FGM is often performed before the age of 5 years old, though the practice continues well past puberty. A non-medical procedure with no known health benefits, it is typically performed outside of a doctor’s supervision (by a traditional circumciser), and multiple complications can ensue, including inability to become pregnant and chronic pain and infections.
Rightfully, the practice is considered both an issue of human rights and gender inequality and oppression. Dirie, who underwent FGM at age 5 and later fled a forced marriage at age 13 (to a man in his 60s) may have returned to modeling to combat the practice, but ironically, it’s the same issue that led her away from a wildly successful career in the late ’90s.
“I remember the first time I said ‘Okay, goodbye modeling, I’m going to do this instead’,” Dirie told British Vogue. “My goal was to shock the world. By doing that I thought the world would jump to fight it and stop it. But everybody just looked and said ‘What is she saying?’”
Dirie is one of the first prominent faces to bring attention to FGM, a practice also brought to mass awareness by writer and activist Alice Walker and America’s Next Top Model Cycle 10 contestant and fellow Somali Fatima Siad, who also underwent FGM and protests the practice. Dirie is the author of several books, including the searing 2001 memoir Desert Flower, a translation of her name (later a 2009 film starring fellow supermodel Liya Kebede). Now, she has partnered with upscale British lingerie brand Coco de Mer to bring renewed attention to the procedure, which, according to UNICEF (pdf) has been undergone by an estimated 200 women in 30 countries, including 27 African nations.
“People think this is a women’s problem, somewhere out there in Africa,” Dirie tells Vogue. “And that’s exactly why it’s still here. If it happened to a man, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this discussion. It’s just another problem for women.”
Through her Desert Flower Foundation, Dirie is building schools and overseeing medical centers to educate and treat FGM victims worldwide, encourages sponsorships of girls to protect them from FGM, and is currently heading a mission to collect 10 million signatures by year’s end to present to the UN secretary general (Dirie became a UN special ambassador in 1997).
“The mission is to eradicate FGM and to inform people who really don’t know anything about this,” she says. “To let the world know, this is not acceptable. This has got to end.”
Reclaiming the female body is one of Dirie’s primary missions, and modeling Coco de Mer’s Icons collections is yet another extension of that.
“Just because we fight for women’s rights doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have anything to do with sexuality,” she told Vogue. “We are women and we wear underwear. And, I’m sorry to say, I did for it my own ego boost. I thought, ‘Goddamn, I’m not looking bad’. I’m not ashamed of my body.”
Most important, Dirie’s partnership with Coco de Mer benefits Desert Flower Foundation, and hopefully, raises women’s concerns about this issue affecting so many of us. “We need to stand up for each other and stand together – the more we do that, the more we’ll stop this problem. All this abuse, we can change.” Dirie says. “It’s time for women to take over and bring things back to peace, love, understanding, compassion, care and togetherness. I say: Women of the world, stand up.”