Waris Dirie, (born 1965, Galcaio, Som.), Somalian fashion model, author, and women’s rights activist known for her efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM), also called female circumcision.
Dirie was one of 12 children born into a large nomadic family living near Somalia’s border with Ethiopia. Much of Dirie’s childhood was spent tending to the family’s herd and obtaining enough food and water to survive. At about age 13 she ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage with a much older man; she embarked on a long and treacherous journey that took her through the desert to Mogadishu and, from there, eventually to London to serve as a maid in the home of an uncle who was beginning a term as an ambassador. When his tenure ended, Dirie elected to stay in London illegally. She was illiterate, but she found work in the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant and a room in a facility run by the YMCA, and she took classes to learn to read and write English.
In 1983, at age 18, a woman on the street approached Dirie about modeling and directed her to the British photographer Terence Donovan. The photos he took launched her career. In 1987 she graced the cover of the multinational holding company Pirelli & C. SpA’s exclusive Pirelli Calendar and appeared in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. She went on to appear on the runways of Paris, Milan, and New York; in advertising campaigns for top beauty brands, including Revlon and Chanel; and in leading fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamour, and Vogue. Her modeling career was chronicled in the 1995 BBC documentary A Nomad in New York.
Dirie, who had undergone FGM at about age five, overcame personal and cultural barriers to speak openly about it during a 1996 magazine interview. Her celebrity status helped to catapult the topic into the public eye, and in 1997 she was appointed as the United Nations Population Fund’s special ambassador for the elimination of FGM. In this capacity Dirie traveled and spoke...