NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden continues this week’s discussion of the film Desert Flower, which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

The exceptional thing, for me, about Waris Dirie’s story is that her plight is so unexceptional. This beautiful and compelling film, which dramatically contrasts the nomadic desert and the cruelty of the process of female mutilation, is a must-see for anyone who cares about the practice.


A civil society representative discusses her organization’s work to eradicate female genital mutilation in rural areas with deputy speaker Anne Makinda, right, in Dodoma, Tanzania. With support from USAID, a variety of civil society organizations hosted an exhibition for MPs to become acquainted with their work and expertise.


As a film-going event, the very excellence of the cast, though, is somewhat jarring to the dire reality in Africa. Dirie escapes, like so many before and after her—and her escape, like that off other remarkable exiles in history, is a breathtaking mélange of luck and courage.  But as the film ends we are reminded that the practice of female mutilation continues, even in the U.S.

I think the filmmakers deserve enormous credit and so does Dirie herself, but only education and stability and opportunity can begin to make inroads into such women’s lives. I might have been more encouraged by the film if I saw Dirie going back to Somalia to her village today—has anything changed? We see her make a speech at the UN: what was the result of that?  Some Q & As with Somali women today might have been interesting under the credits, or someone working in an NGO there today.

Perhaps the filmmakers are doing this with joint symposiums. So many of these countries in which I’ve been waste and suppress the enormous power and potential of their women. Women are stoned in Iran,  facially mutilated as punishment under the Taliban, turned into sex slaves in Asia. But they are also educated in the very same places—by people who fight for them. We do not always hear about these survival mechanisms.

At least a film like this takes from the raw experience and attempts to fight back. Dirie is partly saved by her own grandmother, and her mother allows her to run away. I hope many women see this; they may have to drag their male partners, they can surely take their friends and sisters. Awareness is always, always a positive force in helping to reduce these awful practices, which no religious belief or teaching supports. These are cultural practices, accomplished through ignorance, fear, or to intimidate whole populations into subservience under tribal or tyrannical rule.

Desert Flower
illustrates why the lowest common denominator of pressure often prevails in isolation: humans are vulnerable creatures. And Dirie is one remarkable, amazing woman.  It was a pleasure to watch her story portrayed by Liya Kebede, and I loved Juliet Stevenson, Anthony Mackie, and Sally Hawkins, too.

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