“Tell me about the day that changed your life…” asks the reporter sent to interview Waris Dirie (played by Liya Kebede) in the 2009 biopic Desert Flower. The film is an adaption of a book that tells the harrowing, true story of Waris, a Somalian nomad who, after struggling in London for many years, was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan and became a supermodel. In the film, the reporter blindly assumes that the day that changed Waris’ life was that day – when she was spotted cleaning the floors in a fast-food restaurant. Instead, Waris’ answer unravels her gut-wrenching history as a victim of female genital mutilation.
Most commonly practiced in Africa, Asia and The Middle East, Female Genital Mutilation “intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” (NHS.uk) The operation is typically performed on young girls using knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass and razor blades, and often, barbarically, without any anaesthetic.
FGM is often misinterpreted as a holy tradition, dating back to Ancient Egypt, despite there being no mention of female circumcision in the Bible or the Qur’an – or any other religious scripture. Female Genital Mutilation is seen as a mandatory part of growing up as a young female in many communities – of many different faiths – and it is considered a vital qualification in securing a husband. Indeed, many men have paid a hefty dowry for the girl’s hand in marriage – men who see the circumcised genitalia as clean, chaste and insurance that she is a virgin.
The practice can and does cause excruciating long-term health complications including the spread of HIV, tetanus and Hepatitis B and C, problems during pregnancy and childbirth due to vaginal walls being sewn too narrowly, painful menstruation and urination, and numbness during sexual activity. This numbness is often the cause of the mutilation, as many communities believe it will discourage a woman from having sex before marriage. The sad fact is, considering the emotional and physical pain it incurs, it probably does.
This is not only an epidemic that affects women overseas: 700,000 girls are subjected to FGM in the EU, with an estimated 137,000 of those women in the UK, and numbers in the US have doubled in the last ten years.
Google FGM or type it into YouTube and a number of articles and short form documentaries appear, but for such a widespread and serious issue, it is often swathed in secrecy, shame and ‘family loyalty.’
Waris, now 50, has dedicated her life to campaigning against FGM via the Desert Flower Foundation, which she set up in 2002. She told Refinery29 UK that: “The media plays a key role in the fight against FGM. Without discussing FGM in public, no politician would do anything to stop this cruel crime on innocent little girls. The perpetrators must be punished, hard.”
Waris was one of the first people to talk about the epidemic publicly; she published her best-selling book Desert Flower in 1998, and was a UN Special Ambassador from 1997 and 2003. “You will suffer for the rest of your life from trauma, nightmares, chronic pain and many more problems”, she says, “and as nobody controls communities practicing FGM and the integrity of the girls, the crime does not stop.”
One of the most agonising parts of her film, and her life story, is the discovery of Waris’ circumcision by her British roommate, Marilyn. “Only a cut woman is a good woman,” she says, defiantly, in the film. Her chilling words echo the over-arching feeling towards FGM in countries where it is prevalent. Cutting, seemingly, has a Pied Piper effect, where most people understand its effects and realise that it is morally wrong, but would much rather not deal with the shame of being ostracised by their community.
Safa Nour is the little girl from Djibouti who was cast as the young Waris in the film. On accepting the role, Safa was provided with private education and her family given food, water, travel and medical care, under the condition that her parents signed a contract stating they would never subject her to FGM. Devastatingly, this important act of prevention had unforeseeable results, with Safa’s father speaking out about his unease with the decision to sign the contract, admitting that his family are now “shunned because we have an unclean, uncircumcised daughter.” Though making FGM illegal globally is a crucial and important first step, the resolution is not as simple as banning the practice and hoping it ripples change among communities, because the intention is often mistaken as an unwillingness to understand tradition. Implementing long-term plans for FGM prevention and dissimilation of taboos must also happen. “People practicing FGM have to be educated”, Waris urges.
There are a number of women opting to claim back what was taken away from them by deinfibulation (reversal surgery), which is becoming increasingly common. Charitable organisations like the Desert Flower Foundation are entering into sponsorship contracts with families, asking that they abandon the practice in exchange for school places for the girls, regular appointments with pediatricians and education for parents by way of workshops.
FGM is a barbaric attempt to suppress women and strip them of their sexuality in the most basic and degrading way. In many of these countries across the world, women have no choice in what is done to their bodies. And even when the wounds heal, the psychological damage remains forever.
Fortunately, attitudes towards Female Genital Mutilation are slowly starting to change in rural communities and it is illegal in most countries – Nigeria outlawed the practice this year – but change must come quicker, as there are an estimated 3 million girls in Africa at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation in 2016, according to the World Health Organisation.
Sadly, for many, it’s simply too late.