Ladies Drive Interview - Waris Dirie

How The Desert Flower Grows

Text: Sandra-Stella Triebl
photo: The Desert Flower Foundation

How The Desert Flower Grows

Text: Sandra-Stella Triebl
photo: The Desert Flower Foundation

Waris Dirie. Supermodel. Bestselling Author. Actress. Human Rights Activist. Painter. Believer. And more beautiful than ever before. This desert flower has grown deep roots and confidence to inspire others – no matter what.

Oh my goodness!

Where shall I start with this story about Waris Dirie, the Desert Flower?

Waris Dirie was born as one of twelve children into a nomadic family in Somalia, 1965. At the age of five, she was circumcised, sold into marriage at 13 for four camels and fled through the desert to escape her 60-year-old future husband. One of her uncles, who was the Somali ambassador to the United Kingdom, helped her, thanks to her aunt, to take her to London as a maid. After her uncle’s four-year term was over, Waris Dirie lived here and there, and earned a living as a cleaner at McDonald’s. When she was 18, British photographer Mike Goss saw Waris waiting outside of his daughter’s school. He persuaded her to model for him and later helped her get a portfolio together, as well as to get her more and more modelling jobs. Her career picked up in 1987 when she was photographed, together with the back then unknown model Naomi Campell, for the Pirelli Calendar. Since then, Waris has modelled for Chanel, Levi’s, L’Oréal and Revlon, appeared in a minor role in the James Bond movie The Living Daylights and was on the cover of Elle, Glamour and Vogue.

In 1997, for the first time in her career, she shared her personal experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) with the world. This interview gave her life a new spin. She became a UN envoy for the abolition of female genital mutilation and co-authored her first book together with Cathleen Miller titled Desert Flower, which is what the name Waris means in Somali. The rest is history; the book has sold over 11 million copies to date. In 2009, producer and Oscar-winner Peter Hermann (Nowhere in Africa) created the biographical movie Desert Flower.

Waris was intrigued about the idea of creating a charity and doing more for her cause with her celebrity status and founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna. The goal was to help mutilated girls and raise awareness about the fact – that still today – 37% of all the girls between 15 and 19 are impacted by FGM (according to UNICEF). 200 million women worldwide had to experience what Waris Dirie went through. Waris opened the world’s first holistic medical centre for treatment and care of victims in Berlin in 2013. The next year, she established a Surgical Training Centre for surgeons, gynaecologists and nurses in Amsterdam, followed by another centre in Stockholm. In 2017, a women’s shelter opened in Paris. Her extraordinary story was shared in the musical Desert Flower, which premiered in 2020 at the Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland. And I’m absolutely sure that there is more to come. Waris will continue to help girls around the globe as long as she lives.

Sharing her personal story with the world created an incredibly strong statement against female genital mutilation. “This concerns us all. A crime is being committed in so many countries all around the world.”

Today, Waris Dirie is more beautiful than ever before. A bold human rights activist who has won numerous prestigious prizes and awards for her courage to speak out the unspeakable. Through her foundation, she raises awareness, protects little girls in Africa from female genital mutilation and helps victims regain as much as possible of their quality of life and confidence.

However, being such a well-known spokesperson against FGM also has a flip side. The pressure is high; the trauma is kept alive every time she speaks about it and not everybody supports her cause. According to the German paper WELT, stars like Rihanna or Lady Gaga have not supported her until now. Some journalists say she is “irritating”. The past often shows up in the present moment faster than one would wish for. Letting go and forgiving is much easier said than done and forgetting is just a temporary phenomenon. But Waris wouldn’t be a desert flower if she couldn’t withstand challenging circumstances.

Waris will not only be one of our keynote speakers for the 2023 League of Leading Ladies Conference in Bad Ragaz (, but she also agreed to talk about the topic for our current Ladies Drive issue focused on shame, guilt and self-doubt. Topics that couldn’t be more personal.

Ladies Drive: Shall we start with my favourite first question? What is the scent of your childhood?

Waris Dirie: Frankincense is the scent of my childhood. If a nomad woman in Somalia gives birth to a baby, she uses frankincense as an antiseptic for herself and the baby. It is the first thing you smell. Frankincense played an important role. We used it to perfume our huts and clothes, as well as for medicinal purposes. I love the smell!

And what would be the taste of your childhood?

Camel milk! It is the most important food in the desert, as it helps you to survive when you are short of water. This milk is high in vitamins, protein, minerals and fat. It tastes very good and makes your skin soft and lets it shine.

Because of your courageous openness and the book Desert Flower, we all know what terrible things happened to you. How difficult was it for you to find words for all this?

Growing up in the desert makes you strong, as you have to fight to survive every day. What does not kill you makes you stronger. As a little girl in the Somali desert, I already knew FGM was not right and decided to fight against FGM one day, not knowing when, where and how. During my supermodel career, I decided to talk about it and used my fame to start my mission.

Can you share how you tried to overcome the trauma you went through? I guess one can never forget, but try to forgive and let go of the all the trauma, all the pain that we experienced.

Everything in life happens for a reason and has meaning. To be free, you have to forgive and you have to forget. What ever happened to you, let it go and wash it away. Otherwise, you are trapped. So, I chose freedom!

How do you see and feel your body today?

I love my body. I am proud of myself and I love life.

In this winter issue of Ladies Drive, we discuss shame, guilt and self-doubt. What feelings do these words trigger in you?

We all have the power to overcome obstacles. We can choose darkness or we can choose light, and I chose light. The only sadness my heart feels is when I see other people in pain. We are all humans and we all make mistakes. Never forget, tomorrow is another and better day.

We’re incredibly excited to have you as one of our keynote speakers for the League of Leading Ladies Conference in June 2023 in Switzerland. This conference is all about “Post-traumatic Growth”. Can you share your thoughts and feelings about this topic with me?

You have to take time to get yourself together. But time will heal. You have to trust in that. I’m happy to share that with you and the Conference attendees.

You are an incredible role model for other women. How difficult is it for you to see that so many girls are still subject to genital mutilation? Do you think this fight will ever end?

The day I started my mission to end FGM, I knew I will succeed and FGM will end in my lifetime. I still believe that today. Many things have changed for the better and international studies show a massive decrease in FGM in Africa*.

What could we, as Ladies Drive Sisterhood, do to help you on your mission?

The fight is still going on and not won yet. I need your support. We need more schools in Africa, as education is key and the only efficient way to end FGM. You can sponsor girls, to save and protect them from FGM and allow them to attend school. Or you can sponsor school materials, which are terribly needed in African schools. I also want to bring my beautiful musical Desert Flower, which was staged at the Theater St. Gallen, to Africa. All the great and important messages in the musical Desert Flower will contribute to changing people’s minds and will empower girls and women. I invite you all to come to St. Gallen and see this beautiful performance.

Can I ask you how you feel about the sexualisation of women on social media, in movies, and on the catwalk?

Women are objectified and sexualised every day in every way. But remember, we have the choice to choose dignity.

As human beings, we all want to be seen and heard. How would you like to be seen and heard?

As a woman flying with my angels bringing love, respect and peace to the people.

Do you have something like a bucket list? Something that you would love to achieve – the next big thing?

To one day be on the list of the best painters because painting is my passion.

Waris Dirie is also known as “The Desert Flower”. The former Somali top model fights against Female Genital Mutilation with her own charity foundation. Waris will be one of the keynote speakers at The League of Leading Ladies Conference 2023.

Veröffentlicht am Januar 10, 2023

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