Table of Contents:
2 An overview of Desert Flower - The Extraordinary Life of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller
3 What is Female Genital Mutilation?
4 Analysis of the chapter becoming a woman
1 Introduction “Every 11 seconds, a girl in the world is cut. Every third girl cut dies as a result of female genital mutilation (FGM) and many suffer a lifetime of both physical and psychological trauma” (Desert Flower Foundation). It is sad but true: On a global scale more than 200 million young girls have been cut. The 30 countries in which FGM has mainly been documented are situated in Africa, but also in the Middle East and Asia (UNICEF). However, since a major part of this life-threatening procedure of female genital circumcision is practiced clandestinely, it is probably a far greater number. Unfortunately, the massive migration to many countries in Europe and North America has not prevented families from mutilating their daughters: The Population Reference Bureau concluded that 507,000 women are at risk and affected in the United States (UNICEF).
Due to the fact that “FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women” (World Health Organization), “the last 25 years have seen a surge in activities to bring about an end to FGM, thus the chance that a girl will be cut today is about one third lower than it was around three decades ago” (UNICEF).
In this progress many affected women, who have dared to speak about their traumatic experience in the past in public, have played an important role since they, for example, stood up against FMG in their home country. A prime example therefore is Waris Dirie who today is a Somali human rights activist in the fight against FGM and served several years as an UN Special Ambassador. Waris Dirie is also an Austrian Model and became a bestselling author through her autobiographical novel Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Life of a Desert Nomad in which she describes, inter alia, her childhood in Somalia and thus the genital mutilation she and her sister had to undergo. It is a lifestory which has contributed a significant part to the worldwide combating of FGM through the establishment of the Desert Flower Foundation.
Simultaneously, Waris' success story is a political tool for the world's fight against genital mutilation and for human rights. The principal tool therefore is a natural non- dramatic perspective exposing her intimate experience, which is, in this case, her and her sister's genital mutilation in their childhood.
2 An overview of Desert Flower — The Extraordinary Life of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller
The autobiography Desert Flower — The Extraordinary Life of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller tells the true story of Waris Dirie's life. It is written from the first person perspective and thus from Waris Dirie's point of view. The whole story is mainly told in the past tense as Waris reflects on the story of her life in retrospect. Nevertheless, in the 18th chapter thoughts of home, which is the last one, the present is mainly used since she refers to her present life and nostalgia. Even though the narrative is structured chronologically, she describes in the first scene of the first chapter running away a life-threatening situation during her escape and then explains why she was escaping from home, from then on she looks back again and chronologically begins to tell her lifestory.
Waris Dirie was born into a traditional family of tribal desert nomads of Somalia in East Africa. As a nomad, Waris lived in the Somali desert for over 13 years, tended to sheep and goats but did not learn to read and write. Despite the difficult life as a nomad, the relatively though conditions of the desert, and certain exceptions, she describes this part of her life as a great and happy time because she always had her family around her.
As a young child, Waris was sexually molested by an old friend of her family and thus even before she had to undergo the traditional female genital mutilation at the age of five years. After her circumcision, Waris was considered a woman could be married to a man. Consequently, Waris' father wanted her to get married to a stranger who was more than sixty-years-old and offered five camels for her. She was afraid of this forced marriage as she feared being raped by an old man a second time or being forced to suffer violence. However, Waris knew that in her culture there is no way for a woman to escape from an arranged marriage unless she committed suicide or ran away from her family.
In agreement with her mother Waris therefore decided to run away. After a long trip which she mainly took on foot, she arrived in Mogadishu. There she worked as a housemaid for different family members until one day she had the opportunity to work as a maid for the Somali ambassador in London. Following a series of temporary workplaces, she was discovered by a well-known photographer. From that moment on Waris' modeling career began: She started working together with prominent models and photographers, received a part in a film, gave many interviews to magazines and TV channels in which she spoke about her genital mutilation in order to draw attention to this issue. Today, Waris Dirie is a UN Special Ambassador and tries to fight female genital mutilation.
3 What is Female Genital Mutilation?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), is defined by the World Health Organization as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. The affected girls and women are cut before or during their puberty, but often between the age of four and eight (Desert Foundation). The abbreviation FGM was introduced since the victims perceived the expression female circumcision as too belittling (Schmerzenskinder). To prevent the humiliating word “mutilation” many use “female genital cutting” or, especially in France, the expression female sexual mutilation to emphasize the damage of the sexual sensation as well (Schmerzenskinder).
As already mentioned, the major part of FGMs is carried out in Africa. Making up over 90 percent of all worldwide FGM, Somalia, Guinea, and Egypt have the highest prevalence (UNICEF). The intervention is carried out by professional circumcisers or traditional midwives (Desert Flower Foundation). Instruments of circumcision can be razor blades, sharp scissors, knives, or even a shard of glass (Desert Flower Foundation). Since the intervention is carried out without any anesthesia and under poor hygienic conditions, a series of mental and physical consequences is to be expected. Just to mention a few of them: severe bleeding, long-term pain during urination and menstruation, infertility, Tetanus, Aids, and blood poisoning, some leading to death (Desert Flower Foundation).
Despite the fact that the FGM is a procedure without any health benefits it is of vital importance for the affected cultures. Originally, this ritual represented an initiation rite to adulthood. Today, FGM is an inevitable condition for a marriage as non-mutilated women are regarded as impure and promiscuous and thus are casted out in society. Indicated reasons therefore are for example the chastity of the woman, the protection of the virginity until the marriage, hygiene and aesthetic (Schmerzenskinder).
4 Analysis of the chapter becoming a woman
In the 4th chapter becoming a woman of the autobiography Desert Flower - The Extraordinary Life of a Desert Nomad the protagonist, Waris Dirie, speaks about and describes the traumatic experience of FGM she and her sister had to undergo.
As a young child Waris Dirie wanted to be circumcised, she did not know yet what it really meant to be mutilated as a woman, but what she knew was that through this procedure she would be considered “superior“ to those who had not been circumcised yet (Desert Flower 67). As a circumcised girl is said to be pure and can be married to a man (Desert Flower 67) because “the ceremony . . . will mark their transformation from being a little girl to becoming a woman“ (Desert Flower 63), Waris “was envious, jealous that [her sister] was entering this grown-up world that was still closed to [her]” (Desert Flower 62).
“ (...) through time, female circumcision has been performed on younger and younger girls, partially due to pressure from the girls themselves” (Desert Flower 63). Since the affected cultures present FGM as a necessary procedure to enable a girl to feel like she is not unclean anymore and can only become a woman in this way because “with their genitals intact, they are considered unfit for marriage, unclean sluts whom no man would consider taking as a wife“ (Desert Flower 65), of course these girls will “await their ‘special time‘ as a child in the West might await her birthday party, or Santa Claus's arrival on Christmas Eve” (Desert Flower 63) before they are aware of the pain they edure during and after the FMG. Through this comparison with the children in the West the protagonist causes an unpleasant feeling in the reader and he will even feel ashamed reading that there a children in this world who are looking forward to get such a pain over and done with and even risk their lives just to not being reduced to unclean humans anymore and finally become an appreciated woman.
“ (...) ‘Get away from me, you two unsanitary little girls - you dirty little girls. You haven't even been circumcised yet!' He always spat the words out as if the fact we weren't circumcised made us so disgusting that he could barely stand to look at us” (Desert Flower 67). The protagonist did not leave out the hurting and disparaging words she had to listen to and is thus giving the reader an impression of how it must have felt being violated for not being circumcised as a woman. She is referred to as “unsanitary” and thus “dirty” just because she is in a non-defaced female body. Statements of this nature let the girls think that they have to change their body, and thus being mutilated, to finally be accepted by the others of their culture. “I thought, I have to get it over with - get this mysterious thing done” (Desert Flower 67).
Mama grabbed a piece of root from an old tree, then positioned me on the rock. She sat behind me, and pulled my head back against her chest, her legs straddling my body. I circled my arms around her thighs. My mother placed the root between my teeth. ‘Bite on this.‘ I was frozen with fear as the memory of Aman's tortured face suddenly flooded back before me . . . . I expected a big knife, but instead, out of the bag she pulled a tiny cotton sack . . . and fished out a broken razor blade. She spat on it and wiped it against her dress. While she was scrubbing, my world went dark as my mother tied a scarf around my eyes as a blindfold. The next thing I felt was my flesh, my genitals, being cut away. I heard the sound of the dull blade sawing back and forth through my skin . . . I honestly can't believe that this happened to me. I feel as if I were talking about somebody else. There's no way in the world I can explain what it feels like. It's like somebody is slicing through the meat of your thigh, or cutting off your arm, except this ist he most sensitive part of your body. However, I didn't move an inch, because I remembered Aman and knew there was no escape. I just sat there as if I were made of stone, telling myself the more I moved around, the longer the torture would take . . . and I prayed, Please, God, let it be over quickly. Soon it was, because I passed out. (Desert Flower 69-71)
The protagonist describes in what kind of environment she had to undergo the mutilation: She was positioned on a rock and her mother gave her something to bite on to muffle her screams. This gives the reader an unpleasant conception of the whole situation. It is reinforced by the expression “frozen with fear”, which conveys what the protagonist was feeling in that moment.
Furthermore, the remarkable short sentence structure the protagonist uses in this chapter, which is rather unusual in a re-narration of an event, emphasizes the situation once again in other ways. This abrupt way of describing could be compared to Waris' feelings at that moment or be a symbol of what is happening to her. By using the adjective “tortured” instead of just “painful” or “fearful” when she is referring to the memory of her sister's face the terror of the whole procedure is enhanced and the reader cannot but imagine the cruel situation the little girl is in. Mentioning a “broken razor blade” as the instrument for her circumcision lets the reader think of life-threatening issues since the razor blade is often evocative of (apart from shaving) for example suicide attempts. In this case it would also not be devious to think of fatal endings as this kind of circumcision could end deadly. The scarf her mother uses as a blindfold prevents Waris from seeing what the woman is doing to her and yet it does not reduce the pain.