Elysees in Paris, where she is promoting the Desert Flower recoums
film's upcoming French release. "It brought the story of Dirie's healed
I back all the memories." wounds, a result of her
'" Today, three decades after fleeing the harrowing journey
z Somali desert to escape an arranged mar- through the desert brush
() as she ran away from her
o riage, Dirie's feet are bare again. Though she
has a bad cold-so bad that the hotel staff camel-herding Somali
3 T Then Waris feared it was swine flu and began providing family, and the gen-
lEDirie was modeling in the '90s, photog- masks to room service-she is eager to talk. esis of her role as a potem voice against
~ raphers would sometimes notice the dark She throws off a dowdy puffer coat, orders FGM, a practice that has been inflicted on
§ scars and scratches on her long, elegant feet. peppermint tea, and slides her feet into hotel up to 140 million women and girls world-
~ They look like someone took a lash to her, slippers, the white terry-cloth old-lady kind, wide. Though female circumcision is often
I or a vicious birch branch. In the fashion and begins to tell me about her life. She is thought of as a foreign issue, according to
g world, where perfection is vital, people wearing jeans by no particular brand, an old experts at Boston's Brigham and Women's
~ would insist Dirie needed body Hospital, an estimated 228,000
women in the V.S. have under-
~ makeup or an emergency pedicure. "l CONSIl)ERFG.l\iI.1-'HE gone the procedure or are at risk.
~ In fact, those scars are potent
z reminders of who she is and where she
~ comes from. Dirie is a former super-
-"7Ql~STTIPE OF "Violence against woman does
not know borders," notes Dirie,
ffi model turned activist whose mission is
~ stopping female genital mutilation
-~ (FGM). This year, her life story will be
rrHAT CA1\f -Bt~ -
"whether it is FGM, forced mar-
riage, honor killings, or domes-
tic violence." She is pushing
hard for a V.S. release of Desert
~ told in the film Desert Flower, starring
~ the model and actress Liya Kebede as DOl\TE rro J\:\;VONV\N' Fwwerand notes, "There are an
~ the adult Dirie, based on Dirie's 1998 estimated 40,000 FGM victims
~ autobiography of the same name. "I was Bob MarleyT-shirt (the imprint so faded, I in New York City alone."
5 moved and shocked [when I saw] my entire think it's Abraham Lincoln), and a worn It's a practice Dirie can speak about first-
~ childhood on screen," Dirie tells me as we sit brown cardigan, with a blue spangled do-rag hand. Her mother held her down when she
~ in her chic hotel room off the Champs- tied around her head. was cut without anesthesia by a gypsy ~
woman when she was a tiny girl. Dirie's vagi- genuinely baffled. "Er ... 1don't know. I like
nal opening was stitched closed with thorns. athletic clothes," she says. She mentions that
The pain was horrific. "Can you imagine the £1Shiongroup PPR (home to Gucci and
anything worse than hearing the screams of Stella McCartney, among others) asked her
pain of your own child?" she asks. to design a line of athletic clothes for Puma.
"I consider FGM the worst type of torture "Sport is the only thing thar works. Spiriru-
that can be done to a woman. It's impossible ally, mentally, it empowers me."
to describe the pain," she continues. One That's not to say she isn't grateful for the
of Dirie's older sisters bled to death after opportunities modeling gave her. "It got me
the procedure, while a six-year-old cousin where I am today," she says. "I learned a lot.
perished from a resulting infection. In-her I lost a lot, gained a lot. Then I moved on. I
book, Dirie makes it clear that FGM had to change the world." Her last job
is blatant butchering, writing, "It's was another Pirelli calendar, the 1997
like someone is slicing through the edition shot by Richard Avedon.
meat of your thigh or cutting off your Since 2002, the nonprofit Waris
arm, except this is the most sensitive Dirie Foundation has assisted more
part of your body." In many African than 40,000 people all over the world
communities, she goes on to explain, who have been affected or threatened
"the prevailing wisdom is that there by FGM. "Once a mother from
are bad things between a girl's legs." Sudan came to my office with her
two-year-old daughter. They had fled
irie has come a long the conflict in Darfur, and now her
way to find herself in this Weary of being labeled "the nomad gypsy husband and his parents had decided to
well-appointed Paris model," Dirie quit modeling and broke her have the little girl mutilated," recalls Dirie.
room. At around 13, her silence about FGM in 1997. "It's about "I immediately informed social services and
father sold her to a much empowerment," Dirie tells me. She knew talked to both the father and his parents
older man to be his next her high profile would help get her message about FGM. The girl was saved."
wife. The plan was that he out, but she says, "Being famous is not the She is quick to point out that FGM is not
would cut open her stitched reason I went public. When I lay down at just a women's issue. "As the mother of two
vagina with a knife or break it open by pen- night and could not sleep, I would hear the boys, I feel we have to teach men early. Every
etrating her. So she ran away. She was alone screams of all the girls out there who still education begins with Mama. We have to
in the desert for days-no water, no food. have to suffer through it. I just knew this rethink what we teach our sons. That's the
"I knew that as long as I was alive, I could was my mission. Even as a lirtle girl, I knew most important thing."
make it," she says. "I had nothing to lose but that I would fight against this crime. I didn't This year, Dirie plans to show Desert
my freedom." Once, she woke up to find a know how, where, or when, but I knew I Flower free of charge in Africa and to educate
lion staring at her. She believes he did not would do it." lawyers in Kenya on how to help women
gobble her up because she was too skinny. Kebede, whose portrayal ofDirie is mov- affected by FGM, domestic violence, or
"I wasn't worth eating," she says. ing and nuanced, was thrilled to find such forced marriage. She is also, along with
Before reaching relatives in Mogadishu, a challenging role. "I had the most incred- Salma Hayek, Stella McCartney, Gucci's
Dirie was nearly raped by the friend of a ible time playing Waris," she says. "It's fas- Frida Giannini, and others, on the board of
driver who had picked her up while hitch- cinating the way she always marched the PPR Foundation for Women's Dignity
hiking. She hit her attacker with a rock, forward, no matter what obstacle was in and Rights, which campaigns for women's
jumped off the truck, and ran for her life. front of her." The two women didn't meet causes worldwide.
"What happened to my attacker after I hit until the end of filming. "I was meeting this Dirie currently splits her time between
him with the stone, I've never known," she person whose life I knew inside out and was Gdansk, Poland, and Vienna but says,
wrote in her book. not really sure what to say to her," recalls "Look, I belong nowhere and to no one."
By 1983, Dirie had made her way to Kebede. "She cupped my face in her hands Her next move may be to Africa, likely to
London with the help of an aunt who was and looked into my eyes and said, 'This is Tanzania, later this year.
married to the Somali ambassador to the good,' and that broke the ice." "When I go back to Somalia and talk to
city. Upon arriving in the U.K., she worked Even with eyes tired from her cold, Dirie, women about FGM," Dirie says, "they
as a maid for two years and, in what is no at 44, is still ravishing. (Her age comes from always ask me, 'You mean you left your
less than a real-life Cinderella story, was Wikipedia, not from her. "Angel, I don't camels to go live in white man's world?'
discovered by the late fashion photographer know how old I am; neither does my "And I always say, 'Yes, I did that. A camel
Terence Donovan while she was working in mother. We don't keep track of years in girl did that. I did it with my wish and my
a hamburger joint. He ended up shooting Africa, only of seasons.") "Personal style?" wheel and my way.'" •
her for the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. says Dirie with a shrug. "I don't really believe
By the 1990s, she was living the high life, in that. Whatever is comfortable." When To help in thefight against FGM, go to
modeling for Chanel, Levi's, and Revlon. asked if she has a !-avoritedesigner, she looks waris-dirie-fimndation. corn.