March 9th 1999
To Cheryl Garrett
The Observer

A reply to Waris Dirie

I do not know Waris Dirie but I am also Somali, also a woman and I
too was circumcised. I was nine. I remember running away when I
heard the screams of my two sisters who are cut before me. I was
held down, my head held back by one woman, my legs forced apart by
another. Yet I remember too, wanting it done because then I would be
like a real woman.

Now I bitterly regret it. I know the thousands of possible early
deaths and appalling suffering it causes to millions of women from
West Africa to Indonesia. Like thousands of Somalis I know live in
exile in the West and I know the humiliation of being asked by a doctor
if I have been burned or attacked and having to excuse it as a "Somali
custom". I will never allow it to happen to my daughters.

But to stop this horrible custom one must speak the truth about it and
this is where I differ from Dirie. She has been made a United Nations
ambassador on the issue of female circumcision but I am not sure if she
is the best person for this job. To change the practice in Somalia you
have to change the way Somalis think. That requires understanding and
sympathy, and it has to come from someone Somalis respect. Somalis are
Muslims and do not respect a Somali woman who poses half naked for fashion
displays or pictures for calendars for tyre makers.

The article describes her as anything but dishonest yet there are parts of
her book, Desert Flower, that are clearly made up, or at least not written
by her. It is littered with stories that just do not ring true to Somali
culture. Many of them seem borrowed from America and European life and the
attitudes she professed even more so. Pets for example. "Somalis just do
not keep animals as pets" She also claim that her father tried to sell her
to a 60-year old man for five camels. While her father may have intended
her to marry this man, is she not actually describing bride price? Giving
camels or money to the family of a bride is a traditional practice in
Somaliaand has nothing to do with buying or selling.

I also find it hard to believe that if Dirie's mother spoke Italian and
had western education that she would have married a nomad man "because
she thought it would be so romantic to roam in the desert with her loved
one and be close to nature" No Somali, let alone an urban Somali, feels
romantic about nomadic life in the desert. Dirie is reading western feelings
into Somali culture

As a child we were told that circumcision would ensure virginity and that no
man would marry you if you were uncircumcised. No one ever said it was done
to give men more sexual pleasure. Men play no part in the practise. Some
agree with it some do not - my father was furious when he discovered it had
been done to us. The practice is carried out by female members of the Midgaan
clan, a low castle clan who are butchers, shoe makers and do other lowly jobs.
They are paid for their work but not well.

This book will reinforce western images of Africa as primitive and cruel and,
however much outrage her description of female circumcision may create in the
rest of the world; she will make no impact where it matters-in the hearts and
minds of Somalis.

By Nimao M