With the recent attack and kidnapping of almost three hundred Nigerian school girls, we’ve been thinking more and more about how our society and world values women. Our value is a topic that Waris Dirie covers so well in her autobiographical memoir, Desert Flower. Though Waris is from Somalia and has become one of the most beautiful supermodels to walk the walk, her book tells the story of a woman who began her life as a broken little girl who, like many other women around her, faced a horrific life of oppression, illiteracy, violence and poverty.
This memoir begins with a glimpse into the pastoralist childhood of Waris. Her family is nomadic and her journey sets the tone of one of the themes of this book – walking (fighting through) – both physical and mental. As a young girl she was “cut” through the practice of female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM). Tied down to have her clitoris cut off while fully conscious, she is left under a tree for shelter to heal after her horrific rite of passage. Waris describes her experience and the practice without apology and is very direct in describing how female genital mutilation so often leaves its victims that are lucky to survive with life long constant pain and discomfort and death for the girls who don’t. Before her own mutilation, she watched her sister through a fog of naivete and concern go through her own cutting that left her with infected genitals but somehow still meant that “she was now a woman.”
Waris left home at 12 years old to escape being married off to a 60 year old man for five camels and instead chose to trek through the desert with no food or water in hopes of finding a better life for herself. After walking across the Somali desert to Mogadishu she soon found herself living in London and working as a servant to her uncle, the Somalian ambassador. The book goes on the tell the story of her life as a house servant, an abused spouse, a fast food worker and eventually a super model, mother and UN ambassador. Some of the events in her life are purely coincidental in many amazing ways but the premise of this book is what’s most important. Not that she become a super model, but that she chose to speak out against the treatment of women in her country and consequently all over the world.
Another major theme of this memoir is violence against women. As a child, Waris was also raped and as a woman she faced a constant barrage of sexual and physical assault as well. Her life is emotionally complicated, just like many of ours, and she must also fight (continue walking) through an oppressive society full of minimum wage jobs, people who are constantly trying to take advantage of her, political instability and warfare. But she never quits. She never gives up.
The story delivery is simple and to the point. Waris writes in a tone that can be interpreted as a bit selfish (perhaps if only from a Western perspective) in the later half of her book, but like any memoir, these are her words, thoughts and actions which make her experiences no less valid. This book and her experiences will stick with you long after you’ve put it down. Her story is gravely important, and like the the missing Nigerian school girls, and the threat of them being sold off for $12 each, we must not only think about the lack of value we put on the lives of women in this world, we must also act.
Girls and women are under attack every day simply for being born female. Over 150 million women and girls worldwide have experienced female genital mutilation with over 8,000 undergoing the procedure every single day (some as young as three years old). Women are being sold into sex slavery prominently in Asia and in America, women from the LGBT community are constantly under attack. To help your fellow sisters, become active in your outcry. Write to your congressman and demand that they start speaking up on women’s rights violations both nationally and internationally, join your local community LGBT support groups and stand up for injustice when you experience it and find an international support group for women like the ones on this list. We must support one another.