Mercy Mission

updated 11/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

Waris Dirie was just an innocent, unknowing child of 5 when she begged her mother to let her be circumcised like virtually all females in Somalia. "When you've been told over and over that, until this happens, you're filthy and no man would ever marry you, you believe what everybody says," Dirie explains. "I just wanted to be like the other girls."

Months later her awful wish came true. As her mother held down the crying, blindfolded Dirie, a gypsy performed the circumcision using a dirty, dull razor and no anesthetic. She sewed the ragged wound with thorns and thread. "It's not a pain you forget," says Dirie, in a whisper. She was left with only a tiny opening, and urinating became torture. Later, menstruation was so unbearable that Dirie routinely fainted.

Now 31 and a top fashion model, Dirie is speaking out against female genital mutilation. "To be here, through all the ups and downs in my life, there's got to be a reason," says Dirie, who was named a United Nations special ambassador in September 1997. "I think God gave me a voice to speak for other little girls."

Though Dirie's story is painful to hear, "those who don't usually pay attention to ambassadors have been fascinated by her," says Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN's Population Fund. Dirie has put her career on hold to lecture at health conferences and testify before lawmakers. She has also been promoting her memoir Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, which Elton John plans to turn into a movie. "Being a supermodel is not important to her," says Dana Murray, 27, her boyfriend of three years and father of their 17-month-old son Aleeke. "This is her calling."

Each year an estimated 2 million girls face circumcision. Most of these brutal rites of passage take place in 28 African countries, though they are also performed in the Middle East and Asia. Emigrés to the U.S. have brought the practice with them (a recent report commissioned by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter estimates that more than 160,000 girls and women here have been or are at risk of being circumcised), prompting Congress to pass a law in 1996 making female circumcision on a minor a felony; four states have banned the practice on females of any age. Next year, when Dirie makes her first official visit to Africa, she won't argue cultural beliefs with tribal chiefs and mothers—she'll argue health. "It's a medical matter," says Dirie, who had surgery in London at 20 to have her vagina reopened. "It's inhumane."

One of 12 children of nomadic parents in drought-ravaged Somalia, Dirie and her family (a sister died from infection after her circumcision) moved constantly in search of water for their camels, cows and goats, on which they depended for milk. At 13, Dirie was sold by her father into marriage to a man four times her age in exchange for five camels. But before her betrothed could claim her, Dirie ran away. After a desperate journey across the desert, she arrived at the Mogadishu home of an aunt, where she stayed on as a maid. She soon moved to London, where she worked for an uncle for four years. On her own and illiterate at 18, she rented a room at the YMCA and taught herself to read and write. The following year a photographer spotted her at work in McDonald's and asked to take her picture. Soon after, she was appearing on the runways in Paris and Milan. Photo spreads for Allure and Mademoiselle followed, as did a part in the 1987 James Bond movie The Living Daylights.

In 1993, Dirie moved to New York City. Two years later she saw jazz drummer and producer Murray perform at a club. They've been together ever since and now live with their son in a four-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish she were home more," Murray says. "But what she's fighting for is so important."

Dirie has little patience for those who disagree. During a Voice of America call-in show, an Ethiopian man berated her for modeling but seemed unfazed by female genital mutilation. "Do you think it's all right for you to slice my body? You think that's okay?" she demanded. "I'm going to cut you off now—goodbye!" As she composed herself, the crew burst into applause.

Christina Cheakalos
Eve Heyn in New York City

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