Waris Dirie is a Somalian supermodel who rose to international fame in the early 1990s. Born into a nomadic (travelling) family living near Somalia’s border with Ethiopia in 1965, Waris ran away from home aged 13 to avoid an arranged marriage. Finding fame in the UK during the 1990s, Waris has used her position to speak out against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and talk about her own childhood experiences.
After leaving home and finding shelter in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, Waris was sent to the UK to work as an unpaid maid in the Somalian embassy, for an uncle who was the Somali ambassador to the UK at the time. When his position ended, Waris chose to stay on illegally in the UK, taking English classes alongside restaurant and childcare jobs. At the age of 18, she was ‘discovered’ by a photographer who put her in contact with UK modelling agencies. Overcoming the racism of modelling agencies who claimed there was “no call for black models”, she was eventually photographed by celebrated British photographer, Terence Donovan. This put Waris on the map, and by the 1990s, she was modelling for huge brands including Chanel, Levi’s and L’Oréal.
However, it is Waris’ dedication to feminist activism and speaking up against FGM that has made her an icon across the world. She opened up about her own experience with FGM at the age of 5 in women’s magazine Marie Claire in 1997, and talked about the realities of being a young woman in a patriarchal society that favours men over women. That same year, Waris became a UN special ambassador against FGM, and in 1998 she co-wrote her first book: Desert Flower. This book about her life became an international bestseller, with over 11 million copies being sold worldwide. She later released other successful books, including Desert Dawn, Letter to My Mother and Desert Children, which was launched alongside a European campaign against FGM.
Waris has dedicated her life and career to bringing the world’s attention to FGM and its victims. In 2002, she founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna, a charity that raises awareness and money for the global issue of FGM and those it has affected. She received the World Social Award at the Women’s World Award Gala in Hamburg, Germany in 2004, and opened the World Conference against FGM in Nairobi. Her speech and ‘Waris-Dirie Manifesto’ against FGM gained international support. In 2006, she spoke to European Union (EU) ministers in Brussels which led to the EU strenthening laws preventing FGM across Europe. She is also the patron of the Desert Flower Surgical Training Centre, the world’s first holistic medical centre (providing alternative forms of medical care) for the treatment and care of FGM victims in Berlin. The Centre was established in Amsterdam in 2014, with centres in Sweden and France opening later. Additionally, her focus on education in Africa is shown through the project “Save A Little Desert Flower,” which works in Sierra Leone to save young girls from FGM, where 3 Desert Flower Schools have been built.