News / USA

Film Tracks Woman's Path from Desert Nomad to Supermodel Activist

Somali-born Waris Dirie now helps lead the global fight against female genital mutilation

A scene from "Desert Flower" with Timothy Spall and Liya Kebede.
A scene from "Desert Flower" with Timothy Spall and Liya Kebede.

Multimedia

Carolyn Weaver

The life of former supermodel Waris Dirie, who was born into a nomadic Somali clan in 1965, sounds like fiction. A goatherd by age six who cared for her family’s animals, Dirie ran away at 13 to avoid being sold into marriage.

That was the start of a remarkable journey, dramatized in the feature film “Desert Flower," based on Dirie’s autobiography.

Running away

It's the first major acting role for another top model, Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede.

“I think first of all, every time you want to play somebody who is real is always challenging and always scary, because you are given a responsibility of someone’s real life,” Kebede says. “So, definitely I was really intimidated and scared.”

As a child in a culture that practiced female genital mutilation (FGM), Dirie knew no other way of life. But when her father tried to marry her to an old man, she ran away. She walked for days across the desert, then hitchhiked to relatives in Mogadishu, evading both human and natural dangers. The following year, she leapt at the chance to go to London, to work as a maid at the Somali embassy.

In her autobiography, Dirie writes of her confusion at seeing white people and a flush toilet for the first time on the airplane that took her to a new life. For the next four years, she washed floors and dishes seven days a week and practiced speaking the English she heard on television. She also taught herself to read and write, since her employers discouraged her education.

Being discovered

At 18, faced with the likelihood of having to return to Somalia when the ambassador was recalled, Dirie fled again. She found refuge at a women’s hostel and got a job as a cleaner in a fast-food restaurant. That's where she was discovered by a well-known fashion photographer.

In the film, Juliet Stevenson - who plays a tough modeling-agency executive - briskly interrogates the young immigrant, asking her, “Why do you want to be a model?”

“Being a model is better than being cleaning lady,” Dirie replies.

Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede plays Dirie in 'Desert Flower.'
Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede plays Dirie in 'Desert Flower.'

“I was really touched by that kind of Cinderella story and the immigrant story and overall talking about FGM,” says Sherry Hormann, the Germany-based writer and director of "Desert Flower," “but in a way that you don’t lose a sense of humor, because I think that humor is the strongest weapon to survive.”

Fighting female genital mutilation

Hormann sees "Desert Flower" as more than an entertaining film biography. It’s also a broadside against FGM, a widespread practice in parts of Africa and Asia.

Like all her female relatives, Dirie was circumcised as a small girl, by a traditional female circumciser, an event the film dramatizes. Dirie’s clan practiced the most extreme form, in which all the external genitalia are cut off, and the remaining flesh stitched tightly together, leaving a hole the size of a pinhead for urination and menstruation.

That form of FGM is sometimes fatal, experts say. Girls can die from blood loss, shock or subsequent infections, as a sister and cousin of Dirie's did. Life-long pain, loss of sexual pleasure and other health problems, including high-risk childbirth, are virtually inevitable.

In "Desert Flower," Dirie is shocked to learn that not all women are cut. After struggling with physical and emotional pain, she ultimately seeks corrective surgery. The film dramatizes how in 1997, at the top of her modeling career, Dirie also became the first celebrity to speak out against FGM. She first told her story in a magazine interview and then in a speech at the United Nations. After being named a special U.N. representative on FGM, she left modeling to devote herself to the cause.

Making a difference

Actress Liya Kebede hopes the film will take Dirie’s message to all the places where FGM is still practiced. “I think the movie is very gentle and very sensitive, at the same time quite honest with things,” Kebede says. “I think it’s a wonderful story to watch, entertaining and fun, while addressing an issue that’s quite present, and especially in Africa.”

The film was shot partly in Djibouti, near the border with Somalia, and many of the actors are desert nomads from Dirie’s culture. Hormann says she fulfilled a promise to the people that she would return to show them the finished film. Several thousand attended the open-air screening in the desert, she says.

“At the end, it was silent, and a nomad father stood up and he said, ‘We at home we don’t talk about mutilation, we just do it. And I see it for the very first time. And none of my daughters, and I have six daughters, will ever be mutilated, ever.’ And after he stood up, many other fathers stood up. And at the end there were 23 fathers standing in the crowd. And you sit there as a filmmaker and you think, 'Wow, you can do something, baby steps, but you can do something.'”

"Desert Flower" has already been shown in Europe and South America, but is only now arriving in the U.S. as well as Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Dirie, now 46, lives in Austria, where she campaigns for women’s rights through her Desert Flower Foundation.

You May Like

Multimedia US Nurse ‘Cured of Ebola,’ NIH Says

Nina Pham, Texas nurse who treated first Ebola patient in US, received no experimental drugs; WHO expects vaccine surge in 2015 More

Video Islamic State Militants Encroach on Baghdad

Iraqi capital not under ‘imminent threat,’ US military says, amid worries about foothold More

Video Hong Kong Protesters Focus on Holding Volatile Mong Kok

Activists say holding Mong Kok is key to their movement's success, despite confrontations with angry residents and police More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid