A bestselling book becomes an award-winning movie and inspires a disturbing painting: February 6th is the United Nations Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). And I’ve been fascinated to trace the story behind a modest photograph on the United Nations website.
In the formal May 2015 press photo above, a UN official and two Goodwill Ambassadors from the Global Alliance Against Female Genital Mutilation (GA-FGM) pose with a large painting. My eyes are held by the unwavering male stare that dominates one side of the picture.
Then I look to the left of the painting. A girl’s legs – no face, just an anonymous lower body – are bound tight with white tape, in gleaming contrast to the blood spilled around her. A searing flash of bright colour, like a scream of pain and fear, divides this half of the portrait from the man’s face. It’s the closest I could bear to get to the reality of FGM and even this is hard enough to see.
Quebec-born artist Patrick Gignac painted “Excision” in 2010, after seeing the movie ‘Desert Flower’, from the novel of the same name by Somalian model-turned-campaigner Waris Dirie. “I began doing some research on the practice of FGM,” he said. “Within minutes I was blown away, shocked by the brutal and disturbing things I found out.” He says he was horrified “to see what women suffer in the name of tradition and religion.” I feel he transmits that outraged energy straight on to the canvas.
Waris Dirie speaks out on FGM
Waris Dirie was born into a nomadic Somali family in 1965. Staying with relatives in London, she was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan. She graced the cover of the 1987 Pirelli Calendar and went on to become a top international model. It wasn’t until 1997 that she ‘came out’ in Marie Claire magazine about her own female genital mutilation at the age of three.
Abandoning her modelling career, Dirie became a UN Special Ambassador for the Elimination of FGM and went on to start the Desert Flower Foundation, dedicated to her lifelong goal. The movie ‘Desert Flower’, based on her novel, launched to critical acclaim in 2009. It has since gone on to launch in 20 countries, winning awards, but more importantly, awareness for the cause.
UN Goal to end FGM
The UN is committed to ending the horrifying ordeal of female genital mutilation and its damaging results by 2030.
Organisations like Tostan and in the UK, the Orchid Project, have been active for years in advocating and supporting practical moves to end FGM. Not with hostility or accusation, but by working with community leaders, changing hearts and minds.
Finally, it’s inspiring to see how storytelling, moviemaking and painting have helped to further the cause of awareness and make such eloquent arguments for not cutting so many girl’s lives – all too literally – short. Waris Dirie’s ‘Desert Flower’ has bloomed, and seeded a vital message all over the world.
(Picture caption: A vivid painting speaks to UN’s determination to abolish FGM by 2030. UN photo: Jean-Marc Ferr)