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"If genital mutilation were a problem affecting men, the matter would be long settled."

by deeyOni

As a Western woman living in the 21st century, there are some things I find almost impossible not to take for granted. The right to vote, for example, hard won as it may have been by my great-grandmothers. Or the right to choose my own life partner, instead of having an arranged marriage thrust upon me as some of my Asian friends have faced even today. But what about the right to orgasm? Such a basic right that the thought of doing without it has probably not occurred to your average modern woman. You only need look at the magazine racks by your local supermarket checkout to be bombarded with advice on how to have one (with or without assistance), when to have one, why to have one, how to have multiples' and so on.

Leslie Olin's yOni shield was inspired by an account she read about Female Genital Mutilation. View more of her shields here

What if that right was brutally denied you before you were old enough to know about sex?

Waris Dirie underwent female circumcision, otherwise known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) when she was only five years old. Born to a nomadic Somalian family, Waris's life seemed preordained from day one. As a girl child, her duties were to gather food, tend the family's meagre herd of camels and goats and then at puberty to repay her debt to her family by marrying and fetching a decent bride price (usually paid in livestock).

At the tender age of five, Waris begged to be allowed to participate in the ancient coming of age ritual. Her older sister Aman was about to 'become a women', and little Waris did not want to be left out. She had no idea that that this was a brutal and painful initiation that would leave her womanhood scarred for life. She was to be held down while her clitoris and inner parts of her vagina were cut off, then roughly stitched closed leaving only a tiny 'matchstick-sized' opening through which to urinate and menstruate. It is estimated by Waris that approximately 70 million women worldwide have suffered this horrific mutilation, and her (emotionally and physically) scarring personal experience proved to be a defining moment in her life.

At twelve, faced with enforced marriage to a 'disgusting old man', Waris decided to run away. With her mother's support she fled on foot in the middle of the night, running for days without food or water and barely an inkling of destination.

After finding refuge with relatives in Mogadishu, Waris's escape hatch came in the form of Uncle Mohammed, the Somalian ambassador to the United Kingdom who happened to be married to one of Waris's aunts. Talking her way into being taken to London as a maid, Waris found herself facing a different spectrum of obstacles and prejudice as an uneducated, illiterate, non-English-speaking African girl in the Western world.

At 18, Waris was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, and her life underwent another irrevocable change as she eventually became an internationally recognized model and the face of Revlon.

In Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, Waris Dirie recounts her incredible journey from the depths of poverty to the catwalks of Milan. The result is an eye-opening, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately inspiring and heart-warming read.

In Desert Dawn, the sequel to Desert Flower, Waris returns to Somalia after almost 20 years absence in an attempt to track down the surviving members of her family. As an active advocate for the abolition of FGM, Waris risked her personal safety in returning to her home country.

In becoming an United Nations spokeswoman for the abolition of female genital mutilation, Waris has repeatedly broken a strong traditional taboo by speaking publicly about her own circumcision. This has drawn a hostile response from Muslims in the West as well as Somalia and other Muslim countries. Waris cites Somalia's political situation at the time as 'one of anarchy, marked by inter-clan fighting and random banditry. Kidnapping, rape and murder (were) frequently reported.'

Though actively discouraged by friends, colleagues and the United Nations, Waris manages to overcome passport restrictions, the illness of her three-year-old son Aleeke and extreme prejudice during stopovers in Muslim countries before finally returning to her homeland.

Her subsequent adventures and reminiscences as she finds the family she had left in body but never spirit are compelling, entrancing and sometimes horrific. Desert Dawn is essential reading for anyone concerned with women's issues in today's world.

Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad (1998) and Desert Dawn (2002) are published by Virago Press and are also available together in an Omnibus (2004). Waris Dirie has also written a third book in the series, Desert Children (2007). These books and more are available both new and used from Amazon. Click on the images below for more information.

To find out more about Waris Dirie and to support her campaign against Female Genital Mutilation please visit her website.

Review by Dione Green.


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