IT CUTS SO DEEP

Born a Somali nomad, Waris Dirie is now a top model and a UN ambassador campaigning against female circumcision. Trouble is, she's locked herself in her hotel room and won't come out. Angela Neustatter reports
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The Independent Culture
WHEN WARIS DIRIE was appointed a United Nations ambassador last autumn, with female circumcision as her special platform, she declared loudly and publicly that this was the opportunity she had been waiting for ever since the day she was taken by her mother to the "professional cutter". She is 28 now, one of the world's top models, composed and beautiful, but it is clear that this appointment means more to her than any fashion job. Putting an end to female genital mutilation (FGM) is her mission in life, she says, her words a quaint blend of naivete and grandiosity: "I am an ambassadress for my sisters in Africa. I shall tell the world how, when you have been cut, you are ruined as a sexual woman, how you live in pain for the rest of your life and that we are put through this to please men. Our daughters don't have to go through the same. I shall not stop until mutilation of women stops."

The UN knows it has struck gold by getting such a high-profile personality as Waris as its spokeswoman: hers is a romantic rags-to-riches story, which began with a nomadic childhood in her native Somalia. UN "goodwill ambassadors", as they are known, are invited to promote an issue about which they feel strongly and they work as volunteers - most see it as an honour - for a fixed period of time. But already there are signs that Waris may not find her new role as easy as she hoped.

It is only 18 months since Waris first spoke out about her experience of being circumcised - and while it may not sound a dramatic revelation in the confessional West, talking about such matters is very different for a woman who grew up in a culture where the taboo is so great that even mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, do not share what they have been through. She explains: "It was my dark secret - the thing I have feared telling because I feel such disgust at my body and I imagine other people will feel the same disgust for me."

Despite her fears, Waris arrived in Britain earlier this month, with an entourage of publicists, to promote the UN's three-year Face-to-Face project, which has a particular focus on FGM. The UN had lined up a three- day schedule of back-to-back radio and TV appearances, a press conference and an exclusive interview with the Sunday Review. Here was her chance to spread the word, or so the reasoning went. Everything went smoothly until the press conference - at which, of course, she was expected to answer a barrage of personal questions. The press crowded in, thrusting microphones under her nose, shoving and pushing to get close. Waris fled.

She escaped to her room at the Hilton in Regent's Park. And, for 12 hours, she refused to come out. Never mind that she had more interviews to do that day, including one with CNN, or that she had agreed to see me the following morning. She refused to answer phone calls or speak to the parade of people trying different persuasive speeches outside her door.

In the foyer, Walter Coddington, the campaign manager who had just "taken Waris on" for Face-to-Face, was pacing the hotel lobby anguishing over lost opportunities. Then another project member stormed off upstairs threatening to tell Waris through her door that she would be stripped of her title if she didn't do her stuff. Edith Simmons, media director with the International Planned Parent-hood Federation, a non-governmental organisation backing the campaign, was clutching a bunch of lilies she had brought for Waris. She was more compassionate: "The outside world sees her as a successful model who can flirt and be in command for the camera. They don't understand that when she talks about her mutilation it's not a performance but something that costs her dear. We have to take care with Waris because I have seen how vulnerable she is."

IT WAS mid-afternoon, several hours after my appointment had been fixed, that word came that Waris would see me in her room. There she was, perched on her slept-in single bed wearing a slinky printed-jersey skirt with a designer label and a grey cotton T-shirt as pyjamas. Long legs were curled under her supple, narrow body, her black curls a dishevelled halo around the tiny, high-boned face. She smiled, but anxiously, looking at me with dark darting eyes, as though assessing whether I was friend or foe. I noticed that she was trembling slightly.

She gestured to me to sit next to her, apologised for making me wait, and was suddenly talking rapidly in the still child-like English she learned at night school and by watching television as a refugee in London. Every now and then she would falter as she searched for a word, opening her hands wide in a gesture of helplessness. She talked about her childhood, describing her nomadic lifestyle, the time when she, her 11 brothers and sisters her mother and father moved across the barren Somali countryside on their camels: "Every day we went on looking for food and water. We never knew what we would find." Though there was milk from the camels, and usually someone to help out if they found nothing, there were times when they fell asleep in the darkened hollows of the sand mountains with their stomachs grumbling from hunger. They learned survival skills, a day-to-day toughness - Waris recalls how she fell off her camel one day, dislocating her arm: "My father just picked me up and threw me back on the camel."

But nothing prepared her for the day when she was about five - it is difficult to be precise as they lived without calendars or watches - when Waris's father ordered her mother to take her to the "old woman with the bag", who toured the villages performing female circumcisions. Waris believed she was being taken for an important ceremony - but "my mother knew it was a kind of betrayal and it is a dreadful thing to do to a trusting child. But I do understand now that she couldn't help it." The old woman took a blood-stained razor blade from her bag, and Waris heard her mother telling her to sit down, to be good and not to move. She relates the next moments: "I opened my legs, closed my eyes and blocked my mind. I thought I must do it for my mother."

There was the sound of the blade slicing her flesh. First the clitoris then the labia: "Everything. Everything that God gave me to enjoy being a woman." After this the old woman took a needle and sewed the vagina up tightly, but Waris was aware only of the searing pain and the fear that tightened inside her as she saw the bright, warm blood pouring out and around her. There is much about her young life that seems blurred but the terrible memory of this event stays alive, coming back each time she talks of what happened. "I lay on the floor in agony. My legs were tied together to stop me from walking so that I wouldn't rip open. I was on my back for a month. I couldn't eat, couldn't think. I wanted to die."

It seems unimaginable that any parent should want to inflict such pain on their child, yet 130 million women around the world have been circumcised and some two million girls, from babies through to adolescents, go through FGM every year. In about 80 per cent of cases this means an extreme form of infibulation - the excision of part or all of the external genitalia - although it can also mean piercing, pricking and stretching of the labia or cauterisation - when the clitoris and surrounding tissue are burnt. The procedure is usually carried out by a traditional practitioner using crude instruments and without anaesthetic. Circumcision is almost always irreversible and one in four girls and women die from complications - Waris saw two sisters and two cousins killed this way. Circumcision is regarded as a way of maintaining a woman's purity by ensuring that she cannot enjoy sex while also increasing men's sexual pleasure.

Waris's arms are wrapped around her middle and her shoulders hunched: "The pain for women when they have sex is so dreadful and that is what you have for life. This procedure has nothing to do with respecting or caring for women, nor is it about religion - there is nothing in the Bible or the Koran about it being right to cut women - it is just done to give men enjoyment at our expense."

It was not circumcision, however, but the prospect of being forced to have sex with a 60-year-old man that led Waris to run away from her family and her country in her teens. She describes it now, almost as you might tell a fairy story, in a way that bears the imprint of story-telling from her African childhood, where tales are told in great sweeps and many questions are left unanswered. "My father came up to me one day and said, `You are getting married. I have found a husband for you.' He had sold me to this old man for five camels. I was still in a lot of pain. It was an unbearable idea." And so she left one night, telling only her mother, whose sad, stoic acceptance she still remembers. She spent nine days walking and running through the desert and into the mountains. She had no idea where she was going but "miraculously" reached Mog-adishu where an aunt, a distant member of her extended family, was living. An uncle, about whose existence she had not known, but who was going to work in London as the Somali ambassador, agreed to take Waris as a housekeeper and organised her passport and visa. But when, after a year, he was due to return to Somalia she could not face going back with him: "I had to do something so I hid my passport under a stone in the garden at the very last moment and told my uncle I had lost it. He was furious but said he had to go, and so he did. Here people wonder at leaving a teenager, but in Africa you are considered grown up at this age."

In an extraordinary moment of synchronicity, on the same day Waris saw a Somali woman walking in the street: "I talked to her, she told me I could stay with her at the YWCA and she helped me get a job as a cleaner in MacDonald's." It was there in 1987 that the photographer Michael Goss spotted her and asked if she would model for him. Remembering her heroine Iman, the Somali model who is now David Bowie's wife, Waris agreed. It amuses her now to remember her innocence: "I walked into this agency he had suggested and they were casting for a Pirelli calendar which the photographer Terence Donovan was shooting. They immediately asked me to take my top off. I was horrified and ran off." But when the agency tracked her down and pointed out that she could earn pounds 5,000 for being photographed, she was persuaded that going topless was not perhaps so bad after all. It was the beginning of a cherished friendship with Donovan.

Waris learned quickly, and the bookings came flooding in. Two years ago she moved to New York where she has become one of the elite corps of models regularly requested by prestigious photographers and magazines such as American Vogue, Allure and Elle. Rec-ently there was a high-profile cosmetics campaign, shot by Patrick DeMarchelier for Revlon. Then Richard Avedon chose her for the latest Pirelli calendar. But Waris admits that while she has earnt a lot of money, and had a lot of fun, she has also "indulged in my share of badness" and, at times, been surrounded by "friends" who vanished as soon as she was down.

Her New York agent, Tyrone Barrington, says that Waris "lost her way" for a time, caught up in the cycle of parties and premieres: "Suddenly this African kid with virtually no education, and certainly no understanding of Western wiles, was being told she was the most beautiful person. And yes, she was influenced by other models caught up in all kinds of foolish and dangerous behaviour. I saw her absorbing their personalities, wanting to live their lives. I had to step in and try to help her see that modelling is best treated as a business, not a lifestyle, and that she needed to distinguish between fantasy and reality."

Waris has spent her time "running from sex", as Edith Simmons of the International Planned Parenthood Federation puts it, not wanting to explain herself to men, not wanting to risk the pain. Doctors have tried to repair her, without success. Waris says, "I have got from Africa to here, and I have found a way to survive so I do have strength, but I still feel helpless and desperate about my body."

Yet in the past year she has had a child, her adored eight-month-old son Aleeke, and she lives with him and her jazz musician fiance in New York. It is a relationship forged through his patience and understanding. They did not sleep together for some time and she could not bring herself to tell him about her mutilation. He found out by reading about it in a magazine after she talked about it for the first time.

So the next step is her UN role and the belief that she can make some sense of her experience by using it as part of her campaigning. In May, she will visit Somalia at the beginning of an African tour. She will travel to the rural areas where the women are illiterate, as she was, and try to "reach their hearts with my words". She will talk with the male elders asking them to think about whether they want their daughters circumcised. And she will talk to people in politics and power. She is nervous about the reactions she will inevitably provoke. But then she gives a bold smile: "I just have to do it. Such extraordinary things have happened in my life that I believe anything is possible. Besides I may have a daughter one day and this is a fight for her rights." !

PHOTOGRAPH BY HARRY BORDEN

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