Monday, August 25, 2008

Desert Children by Waris Dirie

Desert Children is the third ‘Desert’ book by Waris Dirie, the former fashion model, face of Revlon and UN ambassador for women’s rights. Having told her autobiography in Desert Flower and recorded her return to Somalia in Desert Dawn, this book, Desert Children, extends the focus from Dirie as a person to the challenge of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Europe.

Dirie has written this book in collaboration with Corinna Milborn, a political scientist, Austrian journalist and specialist in human rights issues. They tell how a team of journalists set out to investigate the problem of female genital mutilation and came up with solutions to abolish this practice in Europe.

The book commences with a painful story which becomes the catalyst for the author’s ‘third life’ as a social activist. The pain continues throughout the book as Waris and her team interview women in Europe who have been the subject of genital mutilation. One of the startling revelations of this book is its claim that at least 150 million women and girls worldwide are victims of circumcision, that 500,000 girls and children are affected in Europe alone and that this problem is on the rise.

This is an ideal first book to read about the subject and it takes the form of a journey as Dirie explores the extent of the problem and considers how she and her team will tackle the issue. The book is clear and readable in literary style but its portrayal of deep pain, which is never done gratuitously, makes Desert Children a stomach-turner and a difficult read.

The book is informative without getting bogged down with statistics and unnecessary detail. The author explains the different degrees of mutilation and the reasons why they are carried out. Dirie helps readers to understand the damage that is done by using insensitive labels and she explains the importance of using the right terminology. For instance the author explains why many victims object to the term ‘circumcision’, preferring to use the word ‘mutilation’. The diversity of views is evident in the way some campaigners opt for the expression ‘sexual mutilation’, believing that this practice destroys a woman’s sexuality, not just her genitals. Several appendices at the end of the book are offered to enable readers to understand technical terms and to provide links for those who wish to follow through on services and resources that originate from or exist in different European countries.

As Dirie and her team travel throughout Europe their interviews contribute to a greater understanding of the issue and the different ways that female genital mutilation is understood, practiced and responded to. In a storytelling style, Dirie relays her encounters with medical practitioners, many of whom assist parents to get their daughter ‘cut’ and a much smaller number who are helping victims in the work of physical repair, surgical reconstruction and psychological counseling. Talking to medicos, lawyers, politicians, activists and religious teachers, Dirie presents the many facets surrounding this issue.

Sometimes there are sound bytes and sentences in the book that seem in contradiction to Dirie’s findings. For instance, in making her bold conclusion that female genital mutilation is violence against women and a breach of human rights she says: ‘FGM is not a question of culture. FGM is a question of torture.” (p11) A variation of this statement appears more forcefully on Dirie’s web site: “Female Genital Mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition or religion. It is a torture and a crime which needs to be fought against.” Dirie, however, devotes chapters to the power of cultural norms which become even stronger in the migrant community in Europe. She catalogs the women and men carrying out customs that they believe are sanctioned by scriptures and religious leaders, who are “utterly convinced that they are doing the right thing” for their daughters. Furthermore, Dirie’s quest to understand the Islamic teaching on circumcision, virginity, the human body and sexual pleasure is motivated by her desire to examine religion’s reinforcing power and her belief that “genital mutilation would disappear overnight if the leaders of the world’s religions were to say, ‘Mutilation is contrary to the ethical principles of our religious community. Stop doing it.’” (p168)

As the book chronicles an exhausting journey of fact finding and discovery, one senses great emotion—anger at the prevalence of this oppressive practice in Europe, frustration at the power of culture and ritual, and deep grief as stories are voiced for the first time over the silencing power of taboos. Waris Dirie demonstrates immense courage as she spends six months throughout Europe, hearing stories, watching movies and viewing medical photographs that every day tears open her own wounds. While considering the different sides and the complexity of this torture Desert Children is positive, hopeful and a stirring call to action.

The author quotes Salman Rushdie’s wisdom which he wrote in The Ground Beneath Her Feet: “You will not see the whole picture unless you step out of the frame.” (p210) This is easier said than done. Dirie cannot divorce completely the issue of female genital mutilation from her own story but she strives to step out of the frame and see the picture objectively. She does this by her patient listening, her recognition that each person has their own story, her persistent asking of the hard questions and the methodical way that she formulates a strategy in which others can participate.

Dirie’s analysis of the problem of female genital mutilation demonstrates how this is not a woman’s issue but a human concern. This book, therefore, should be compulsory reading for men as well as women-lawyers, doctors, ministers of religion, politicians and lawmakers and ordinary human beings, regardless of their occupation, race, religion and creed-all people who share this planet and are wanting to make a difference.

Waris Dirie with Corinna Milborn, Desert Children (London: Virago Press, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 49.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Desert Children.

More information about Waris Dirie and her work is available from this web site:

Waris Dirie Foundation