Waris Dirie

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Waris Dirie
Waris Dirie, 2018 during her visit to Sierra Leone.jpg
Dirie in 2018
Born1965 (age 53–54)
ResidenceGdańsk, Poland
OccupationModel, social activist, author, actress, UN Special Ambassador (1997–2003)
TitleChevalier of the Légion d'honneur

Waris Dirie (Somali: Waris Diiriye) (born 1965) is a Somali model, author, actress and human rights activist in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). From 1997 to 2003, she served as a UN special ambassador against female genital cutting. In 2002 she founded her own organization in Vienna (Austria), the Desert Flower Foundation.

Early life[edit]

Dirie was born as one of twelve children into a nomadic family in 1965 in the area of Galkayo, Somalia. Her first name Waris means desert flower. When she was five, she herself suffered circumcision in the form of Infibulation. At the age of thirteen, she fled through the desert to Mogadishu in order to escape an arranged marriage to a 60-year-old man. She first stayed there with relatives, but later she was told that she could not stay any longer because her escape was not tolerated.

One of her uncles, who was then Somali ambassador to the United Kingdom, was looking for a maid. So she was brought to London, where she worked at the Somali embassy without pay. When the uncle had to leave London after the outbreak of the civil war in Somalia, Dirie fled the embassy and lived first in the streets of London, later in a home of the YMCA. She earned her living as a cleaning lady in a local McDonald's. She also began evening classes to learn English.[1][2]


At the age of 18, Dirie's life changed abruptly. By chance, she was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, who photographed her in 1987 together with the then still unknown model Naomi Campbell for the title of the Pirelli Calendar. From there, Dirie's modeling career took off, she became a world-famous top model overnight, appearing in advertisements for top brands such as Chanel, Levi's, L'Oréal and Revlon.[1][2]

In 1987, Dirie played a minor role in the James Bond movie The Living Daylights. She also appeared on the runways of London, Milan, Paris and New York City, and in fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamour and Vogue. This was followed in 1995 by a BBC documentary entitled A Nomad in New York about her modeling career.[1][2]

In 1997, at the height of her modeling career, Dirie spoke for the first time with Laura Ziv of the women's magazine Marie Claire about the female genital mutilation (FGM) that she had undergone as a child,[1][2] at the age of five along with her two sisters.[3] That same year, Dirie became a UN envoy for the abolition of FGM. She later paid her mother a visit in her native Somalia.[1][2]

In 1998, Dirie coauthored her first book along with nonfiction author Cathleen Miller:[4] Desert Flower, an autobiography that went on to become an international bestseller.[1] Over 11 million copies have been sold worldwide to date, 3 million in Germany alone. She later released other successful books including Desert Dawn, Letter to My Mother and Desert Children, the latter of which was launched in tandem with a European campaign against FGM.

In 2002, Dirie founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna, Austria. The foundation collects money to raise awareness about the worldwide problem of FGM and to help those affected.

In 2004, she received the World Social Award by Mikhail Gorbachev at the Women's World Award Gala in Hamburg, Germany.[5] Dirie opened the World Conference against FGM in Nairobi, delivered a much-noticed speech and published for the first time the Waris-Dirie Manifesto against FGM. The Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer awarded her the Romero Prize on behalf of the Austrian Catholic Men's Movement.

In 2006, she addressed the assembled ministers of all EU Member States in Brussels, Belgium. The European Union then put the fight against female genital mutilation on its agenda, after which laws were tightened up and preventive measures initiated in many European countries.

In 2007, the Arab channel Al Jazeera invited Waris Dirie to the popular talk show by Riz Khan. She spoke for the first time on an Arab channel in front of over 100 million viewers about the taboo topic "Female Genital Mutilation".[6]

In 2009, Desert Flower, a feature-length film based on Waris' book Desert Flower was released, with the Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede playing her.[7] Directed by Sherry Hormann, the film was produced by Oscar winner Peter Herrmann. Benjamin Herrmann and Waris Dirie were co-producers. The movie has so far been released in 20 countries including France, Spain, Israel, Greece, Poland and Brazil. In January 2010, it won the Bavarian Film Awards in Munich in the "Best Movie" category.[8] It was also nominated for a Film Award in Gold in the "Outstanding Feature Film" category at the German Film Awards, and won the Audience Award in the "Best European Film" category at the San Sebastián International Film Festival.[9]

In 2010, Dirie was appointed Ambassador of Peace and Security in Africa by the African Union.[10]

Humanitarian work, campaigns, awards[edit]

2002–present: In 2002 Dirie founded the Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna, Austria, an organization whose goal is to eradicate the ritual of female genital mutilation once and for all worldwide. The Foundation's work is financed by donations.

In January 2009 Dirie became a founding member of the PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights, an organization of French tycoon François-Henri Pinault (CEO of PPR) and his wife, Hollywood actress Salma Hayek.[11] She has also started the Desert Dawn Foundation, which raises money for schools and clinics in her native Somalia,[2] and supports the Zeitz Foundation, an organization focused on sustainable development and conservation.

Dirie has campaigned extensively to draw attention to the brutal ritual of female genital mutilation. In 2010 with "Stop FGM Now" in collaboration with the Berlin agency Heymann Brandt de Gelmini.[12] This initiative was awarded the prize for "Best NGO Social Media Campaign" by the German Federal Government.

"Together for African Women" followed in 2011, a collaboration with the Hamburg agency Jung von Matt and the laundry label Mey.[13]

After the rescue of Desert Flower Safa from FGM in 2014, the sponsorship programme "Save A Little Desert Flower" was launched with the agency YELL (Hamburg).

In March 2019 came the much acclaimed campaign "End FGM" with the British lingerie label Coco de Mer. Dirie posed for the company's icons collection (as successor to Pamela Anderson) and was staged by British star photographer Rankin][14][15] Rankin also produced the campaign's short film. The initiative was awarded the if Social Impact Prize 2019 by the iF International Forum Design[16] headquartered in Hanover (GER) and was supported with a prize money.

For Waris Dirie the photo shoot with Rankin in London was a comeback as a model.[17][18]

Desert Flower Center: On September 11, 2013, Dirie as patron opened the world's first holistic medical center for the treatment and care of FGM victims in Berlin together with the Waldfriede Hospital as a cooperation hospital of the Desert Flower Foundation. The Desert Flower Center[19] was awarded the Louise Schroeder Medal by the State of Berlin in 2016.[20]

In 2014, the Desert Flower Surgical Training Center for surgeons, gynaecologists, urologists and nursing staff was established in Amsterdam together with the Desert Flower Foundation BENELUX.

The Desert Flower Center Scandinavia was established in 2015 in cooperation with the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.

In 2017 the Centre Fleur du Desert opened with the Fondation Fleur du Desert in the women's shelter at the Hôpital Delafontaine in Paris Saint-Denis. The Centre Fleur du Desert was visited by French President Emmanuel Macron in December 2017.[21]

Education projects in Sierra Leone (West Africa): In 2016 Dirie and the team of the Desert Flower Foundation decided to make the topic "Education in Africa" the focus of their work. Through the sponsorship project "Save A Little Desert Flower" 1,000 girls could be saved from FGM in Sierra Leone alone.[22][23]

The construction of the first three "Desert Flower schools" in Sierra Leone was announced in early 2019.[24] Diries Desert Flower Foundation is also building a "Safe House", where FGM victims find refuge and protection. There is also a library and a computer centre. In addition, 10,000 copies of Waris Dirie's reading book "My Africa - The Journey" with Desert Flower educational boxes will be distributed to 34 schools in Sierra Leone.

Dirie has received many prizes and awards for her humanitarian work and books including:

  • Woman of the Year Award (2000) by Glamour magazine.[25]
  • Corine Award (2002) of the umbrella association of the German bookselling trade.[26]
  • Women's World Award (2004) from former President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.[27]
  • Bishop Óscar Romero Award (2005) by the Catholic Church.
  • Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (2007) from former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.[28]
  • Prix des Générations (2007) by the World Demographic Association.[29]
  • Martin Buber Gold Medal from the Euriade Foundation (2008),[30] founded by Werner Janssen in 1981.
  • Gold medal of the President of the Republic of Italy (2010) for her achievements as a human rights activist.[31]
  • Thomas Dehler Prize (2013) of the Thomas Dehler Foundation, presented by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger[32]
  • Woman Of The Year Campaigning Award (2013) in London presented by Sacla
  • International Freedom Prize (2014) presented at the House of Lords in London by British Minister Lynne Featherstone[33]
  • Women for Women Award (2017), awarded in Vienna by the magazine "look![34]
  • Donna dell'Anno (2018) in Italy[35]
  • Million Chances Award (2018) donated by the Fritz Henkel Foundation[36]
  • Sunhak Peace Prize (2019) for her commitment to women's rights, awarded in Seoul (South Korea)[37][38]

Attack and disappearance[edit]

In March 2004, Dirie was attacked in her home in Vienna, Austria. Paulo A., a 26-year-old Portuguese man, was held in custody after having apparently stalked her some 1,000 miles across Europe, eventually gaining access to her apartment by climbing through a neighbour's window. "She was so frightened and in shock that she let him in," a police spokesman said. Dirie apparently suffered minor injuries when her assailant threw her to the floor. The attacker then left in a taxi, only to return later on foot to smash one of the building's ground-floor windows. He was arrested when neighbours called the police,[39] and was later given a five-month suspended sentence by an Austrian court. It was reported that the suspect had met Dirie six months earlier when his brother was working at her previous residence in Wales. He later broke into that home and stole items of her clothing.[40]

In another incident, during the early hours of 5 March 2008, Dirie went missing for three days while staying in Brussels, Belgium. She was found alive on 7 March 2008, by a Brussels policeman.[41]

Personal life[edit]

Contrary to popular belief, Dirie is not related to fellow Somali model Iman, the widow of David Bowie. In her book Desert Flower, Dirie states that Iman's mother was good friends with her aunt, a relative with whom she once lived during her time in London.

Since 2009 Dirie lives in Gdansk, Poland. Temporarily also in Vienna. She is mother of two sons (Aleeke, Leon). Aleeke, the older of the two, comes from a relationship with jazz musician Dana Murray.

Since March 2005 Dirie has the Austrian citizenship.[42]

Filmography, books and a musical in preparation[edit]


  • The Living Daylights (1987) - In the 15th James Bond film, Dirie plays Waris Walsh in a supporting role.
  • A Nomad in New York (1995) - BBC documentary about the extraordinary career of Waris Dirie.
  • Desert Flower (2009) - The drama is based on the autobiographical novel and bestseller.


The book that describes Dirie's genital circumcision, her adventurous escape through the Somali desert and the rise to a world-famous supermodel, becomes an international bestseller and appears in over 50 licensed editions. Over 11 million copies have been sold worldwide to date, 3 million in Germany alone (number 1 on the Spiegel bestseller list from 11 to 17 January and from 25 January to 18 July 1999).

  • Desert Dawn (2002) with Jeanne D’Haem

20 years after her escape, Dirie decides to visit her family in Somalia. A dangerous adventure, as Somalia has been plagued by civil war and famine for years. Her second book, which will also become an international bestseller (first place on the Spiegel bestseller list from 8 to 28 April and from 13 May to 23 June 2002), describes the trip to her home country.

  • Desert Children (2005)

With her third book Dirie starts a Europe-wide campaign against FGM. Genital mutilation is not only practiced in Africa, but also in the western world. It reports on encounters with victims and perpetrators, on their research, setbacks and successes.

  • Letter to my mother (2007)

Dirie says about this book on the website of the Desert Flower Foundation: "This is my most personal book. There are simply wounds that don't want to heal. My longing was great to meet my mother again, to forgive my mother, but I had to realize that love and suffering are often inextricably linked. Working on this book was a painful but vital experience for me."

  • Schwarze Frau, weißes Land (2010)

In this book Dirie talks about her life in her new, white homeland - and about her longing for Africa and her deep desire to help her home continent free itself from poverty, outdated traditions and dependence.

  • Saving Safa (2013)

Little Safa comes from a bitterly poor family in Djibouti. Raised in a slum, she is selected for the role of little Waris Dirie in the biopic of the world bestseller Desert Flower. The dramatic scene, in which the little girl is violently circumcised, makes people cry in cinemas all over the world. In real life, Safa is still intact. Dirie is all the more horrified when she hears that Safa's genital mutilation is imminent. And she does everything in her power to save the girl from this cruel practice.

  • My Africa - The Journey (2017)

Together with her Desert Flower Foundation team, Dirie publishes her first reading book for children at African schools. The book tells the story of the little "desert flower" Waris and her brother Mo, who go on a journey together to discover their home continent Africa. On their adventures they get to know the flora and fauna of Africa. In addition to the story, the book also contains numerous writing exercises, which are intended to promote the reading and writing skills of children.


On March 7, 2019, in the presence of Waris Dirie, it was announced at a press conference at the theater St. Gallen, Switzerland that her extraordinary life story would become a musical.[43] Written and directed by the German theater and film director Gil Mehmert (converted Sönke Wortmann's film "Das Wunder von Bern" into a musical, 2014). The lyrics are by Frank Ramond. The music is contributed by producer and composer Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen (wrote the music for "de:99 Luftballons" by Nena). World premiere of the musical "Wüstenblume" will take place on 22 February 2020 at the theater St. Gallen.[44][45]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f Mary Zeiss Stange, Carol K. Oyster, Jane E. Sloan, ed. (2011). Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World, Volume 1. SAGE. p. 402. ISBN 1412976855.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
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  13. ^ ""Wüstenblume"-Autorin Waris Dirie präsentiert Dessous für Mey". www.horizont.net.
  14. ^ "Waris Dirie, Coco de Mer, and Rankin Are Fighting for Women's Rights". Daily Front Row. March 7, 2019.
  15. ^ "Model And Activist Waris Dirie Calls On Women To Join The Fight To End FGM". British Vogue.
  16. ^ "Supported by iF projects 2019". iF WORLD DESIGN GUIDE.
  17. ^ "Waris Dirie: Europe's FGM rates are rising and we must fight it".
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  19. ^ "Desert Flower Center Waldfriede, DFC Berlin". www.dfc-waldfriede.de.
  20. ^ "Abgeordnetenhaus von Berlin – Louise-Schroeder-Medaille 2016". www.parlament-berlin.de.
  21. ^ "Quel honneur! Le Président Français au Centre Fleur du Désert - Desert Flower Foundation". www.desertflowerfoundation.org.
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  23. ^ Voss, Huberta von (March 16, 2019). "Die Wüste bebt" – via www.welt.de.
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  26. ^ Corine Award Corine Award 2002 Waris Dirie for Desert Dawn
  27. ^ "Women's World Awards". Womensworldawards.com. Retrieved 2014-04-17.
  28. ^ Communiqué de la Présidence de la République annonçant la remise de décoration par M. Nicolas SARKOZY, Président de la République July 12, 2007.
  29. ^ "World Demographic Association". Archived from the original on 2009-06-04. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
  30. ^ Martin Buber Foundation Martin Buber Gold Medal 2007 for Waris Dirie
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  34. ^ ""Auch in Österreich ein Problem": Kämpferin für Rechte von Mädchen". Die Presse. November 29, 2017.
  35. ^ "Waris Dirie, Isoke Aikpitanyi e Margarita Meira: sono tre le Donne dell'anno 2018 - La Stampa". lastampa.it. March 16, 2018.
  36. ^ Meissner, Paulina (November 7, 2018). "Schwarzkopf "Million Chances Award": "Wüstenblume" Waris Dirie wird ausgezeichnet". Express.de.
  37. ^ Committee, The Sunhak Peace Prize. "The Sunhak Peace Prize for 2019 Awarded to Waris Dirie and Dr. Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina". www.prnewswire.com.
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  39. ^ "Somalian-born author attacked by stalker", The Guardian, March 11, 2004.
  40. ^ Model's stalker had previous arrests BBC News, March 11, 2004.
  41. ^ "Ex-model Waris Dirie found in Brussels". usatoday30.usatoday.com. 7 March 2008. Retrieved 2019-09-19.
  42. ^ NACHRICHTEN, n-tv. "Diries neue Staatsbürgerschaft". n-tv.de.
  43. ^ "Model turned activist Waris Dirie says world is ignoring the crime..." March 7, 2019 – via www.reuters.com.
  44. ^ Nehmiz, Rolf App/Julia; Nehmiz, Rolf App/Julia. "Waris Diries Wüstenblume: "Das Musical ist Drama, ist Poesie"". St.Galler Tagblatt.
  45. ^ Uhr, 15 45; März 2019, 07 (March 7, 2019). "Im Februar 2020: Waris Dirie: Ihr berührendes Schicksal wird zum Musical". www.kleinezeitung.at.

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