THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Shattering the Silence : Soraya Mire endured a painful rite of passage--female circumcision. But now she’s fighting back. Through her powerful documentary and lectures, she’s forcing people to confront an ancient and still common practice.
In our tradition, a woman gets more trust when she’s stitched. Let me give you an example. In the morning, leaving your apartment, would you leave your door open or locked? A woman is not a door, but she’s property to someone. She’s my property.
--Ali, a 32-year-old Somali man, in “Fire Eyes,” a documentary by Soraya Mire
That day, her mother tricked her.
“I’m going to buy you some gifts,” she said.
Soraya Mire, then 13, obediently got into the car with her mother and a driver. She wondered where the guards were.
She was a general’s daughter in Somalia. Always, they had armed guards. But she said nothing. Somali girls learn to say nothing.
The driver stopped at a nice house in Mogadishu. A doctor’s house, her mother said, taking her inside. They walked down a long hallway to what looked like an operating room. The doctor tied her feet down with rope so she could not move.
“Honey,” her mother said, “it’s about time.”
Time to become a woman.
That day exacted a terrible toll on her body, on her soul. That day, the doctor cut away her external genitalia. He sewed the raw edges together, leaving only a pinhole opening for urination and menstruation. He created a chastity belt of her own flesh, so she could be stitched shut until marriage, in an ancient rite of passage known as female circumcision.
Like her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on, Mire’s destiny was to endure that day in silence--until she set out to change it.
Now Mire is a 33-year-old struggling Los Angeles filmmaker whose documentary on female circumcision, “Fire Eyes,” premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Her one-hour film also played to full houses throughout the country and Europe, at such venues as New York’s Lincoln Center, Stanford University and Laemmle Theatres’ Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. This year, it is scheduled to air via public television in Germany, England, Poland and France.
She is a leading spokeswoman against female circumcision, decrying it as barbaric on ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” on a PBS special and on an American Medical Assn. video. For her work, she was awarded the Winnie Mandela Leadership Award for Upliftment of African Women by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and other groups have condemned the ritual, which is performed in parts of Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. France, Britain, Sweden and Switzerland have laws prohibiting it. In February, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) introduced a bill banning “female genital mutilation” in the United States to ensure that immigrants abandon the practice.
More than 100 million women living today have undergone circumcision, which dates back 4,000 years, according to the World Health Organization. But Mire is the only one to openly tell her story.
“No one’s shouting it from the rooftops like she is,” says Marilyn Milos, director of the International Symposium on Circumcision in Northern California.
Mire talks as if she is making up for lost time.
Her words spill out, run together. She speaks fluent French, English, Italian and Arabic, all in a lilting Somali accent. Her laughter rings with delight. Her gestures are soft, fluid. Her chocolate-colored eyes lock onto their target.
She is vulnerable, and she is confident.
She finds it difficult to say no, so she says yes and stretches herself too thin. She smokes but wishes she didn’t. She cannot pass a baby or dog without stopping to coo. She cries when people compliment her film.
She’s not sure where next month’s rent is coming from but says she’ll one day run her own movie studio. She tells people she’s getting actors Samuel L. Jackson and Lena Horne for her next film as if it were a done deal, when, in fact, it is only a wish.
A few years ago, she buttonholed Robin Leach (“Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”) on a set where she was working as an extra. She suggested that they pose for a picture together.
“One day,” she told him, “you will interview me.”
Once, she heard that a man who wanted to date her was asking around about whether she could perform sexually.
She called him up.
“Geez,” she told him. “I never knew you had such a small mind.”
Mire grew up in a world of silk saris, of maids and private tutors, of afternoon teas with milk and sugar and fresh fruit. Her family’s gated compound, with marble floors and Persian rugs, was cooled by sea breezes. A few miles away lay the straw huts of nomadic herdsmen.
She was the sixth of nine children in a Muslim family. Her mother sprinkled her with saltwater to ward off evil eyes. She twisted Soraya’s unruly hair into a single braid, tying it with bright bows or pretty combs. She hushed her daughter when she laughed too loud or talked too much.
“Words are powerful,” her mother reminded her. The admonition stuck.
Each day, her mother inspected her. Her dress. Her ears. Up her nose.
“In words, I couldn’t say (anything to protest),” Mire recalls, “so I rebelled.”
She played soccer with her brothers and chased her pet baboon up coconut trees. She read forbidden Italian romance magazines. She snuggled outside under the moon with her grandmother, who spun tales of lions and heroes and faraway lands--and made her understand the seduction of storytelling. Together they searched for Soraya’s namesake in the night sky ( Soraya means “shining star” in Arabic). Not just any star. The most shining star.
Her grandmother nurtured her high spirits.
When she was 12, she and her niece snuck under the bed of a cousin and her husband on their wedding night. The girls knew nothing about sex. The couple’s commotion so alarmed Soraya that she leaped up to clobber the groom over the head, saving her cousin, she thought, from sure death.
A few years earlier, she and a sister had danced in a play at the national theater to celebrate the government’s founding. She danced with other children, holding hands in a circle. Just a few simple steps under a spotlight. Just enough to make her feel alive and free for the first time. She wanted to drown in the applause.
“I came from a big family,” she says. “I never had my own clapping.”
She dreamed of becoming a modern dancer. Soraya, the most shining star.
But her mother had other plans for her.
Her father was out of town on the day Mire was circumcised. He was against the practice, although other daughters had already endured it. Her mother didn’t want whispers that her girls were unclean, immoral.
For most Somali girls, the ritual is a means of ensuring survival. With an illiteracy rate of 86%, Somali women have few options outside marriage.
Mire was a child of privilege; unlike most circumcisions, hers was done under a local anesthesia. Still, as a teen-ager, she was racked with physical pain and complications. And she lost the flexibility to become a dancer.
When she was 18, in 1979, Mire’s parents sent her to Geneva for an arranged marriage to a first cousin she had never met. She was terrified. She had heard that the wedding night was like fire roaring through the ears.
At first, she wouldn’t let him touch her. He grew angry. He hit her, she says. He raped her. After eight months, she left her husband to attend Domaine University in Grenoble, in the French Alps, with the financial support of her parents. In school, she also took part-time jobs, including one as a translator for the Somalian Embassy in Paris.
One day in Russian class, Mire passed out from unbearable menstrual pain. In a hospital emergency room, an Egyptian gynecologist familiar with female circumcision examined her. Gently, he gave Mire her first lesson in basic anatomy. He explained that the Somali doctor had removed her clitoris and other genitalia as a way to reduce sexual pleasure.
“I had no idea,” she says. “For the first time, I knew what they took, the worth of what they took.”
But with that realization, Mire says she lost her sense of self.
“What am I? Am I a complete woman? Do I feel something (sexually)? There were so many questions unanswered.”
The doctor referred her to an English psychiatrist, a gay man in his early 30s with whom she felt comfortable discussing her sexuality.
She remained in therapy for a year. She read books about the ways in which men have tried to control women through the ages, with chastity belts, foot binding, rape.
She decided to fight back.
In late 1982, Mire had reconstructive surgery in which doctors reshaped the pelvic area using tissue from other parts of the body. In 1984, she earned a bachelor’s degree in French literature and political science.
When she told her parents of her plan to make a film about female circumcision, they cut off her funds.
Secretly, an older brother living in Canada sent her money and a plane ticket to Los Angeles.
In July, 1984, she arrived with $300 and an English vocabulary that amounted to “I’m hungry” and “My name is Soraya.” Eventually, with no cachet--other than stunning chutzpah--she would knock on the doors of unlikely saviors and ask for money to make her film.
In Los Angeles, she took English classes at a Baptist church and found odd jobs, staying with friends and relatives until she could afford her own studio apartment in North Hollywood.
She found work as a wardrobe assistant on independent films and then as an extra or production assistant in movies such as “Harlem Nights,” “Father of the Bride” and “Body of Evidence.”
In her off hours, she took filmmaking classes via UCLA Extension and the Van Mar Academy of Motion Pictures in Hollywood. And she read scripts at the American Film Institute, such classics as “Wuthering Heights” and “The Birds.” On weekends, she tape-recorded interviews with Somali men and women as research for her film.
In 1992, she quit her job as a free-lance production assistant to work full time on “Fire Eyes.” The title refers to the angry eyes of silent African women.
First, she had to raise $50,000.
In New York, a friend introduced her to philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller, the son of industrialist John D. Rockefeller. He listened to her film proposal and kicked in $32,000. (A spokesman for Rockefeller confirmed the contribution but declined to comment further.)
Kodak agreed to donate 16-millimeter film. Film editors, production assistants and crew members volunteered their time.
Still short, she called singer Michael Jackson’s office and was told to send the bills, about $2,000 worth. (A spokeswoman for Jackson did not return telephone calls.)
She also called Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker, whose documentary on the same topic, “Warrior Marks,” had just been released. Walker’s 1992 best-selling novel, “Possessing the Secret of Joy,” had already provoked worldwide outrage against female circumcision.
The writer sent $9,000.
“We’re talking about something so huge, it’d be very silly to be competitive about each other’s work,” Walker says now.
In October, 1993, Mire got a call from the organizers at Sundance, the country’s premier showcase for independent films. They wanted “Fire Eyes.”
It had four sold-out screenings. People cried; two women fainted during the film’s re-enactment of a young girl’s circumcision.
“I wasn’t crying,” Mire says. “I felt like I had paid my dues crying about this pain of circumcision. It’s about time for other people to feel for me.”
Sundance Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore was struck by the film’s honesty.
“It was a work that had subtlety to it,” he says. “To explore the subject she explored, (one) fraught with emotional pitfalls, and to do it as subtly and fully as she did, takes a lot of talent.”
Others failed to see any subtlety.
In May, 1994, a man with a Somali accent began calling Mire every two weeks with death threats. She didn’t call the police for fear they would not believe her.
Other Somali immigrants also lambasted the film and told Mire that the media’s portrayal of their country as a place of famine and civil war was bad enough. And now this: news about a tradition with subtext and nuances that Westerners could never understand.
Some even questioned the film’s authenticity, says Asha A. Samad, executive director of the Somalia Assn. for Relief and Development and a professor of women’s studies at City College of New York.
“Some men felt that the man who was saying the wife must be stitched up, he must have been told to read lines,” says Samad, who supports the film. “He was too much the stereotype to believe.”
In Washington, D.C., the large Somali community came out in force to see the film’s handling of a taboo subject.
Ibrahim A. Mohamed never thought he’d voice his opposition to the practice. Now, when he lectures on Somalia at universities and high schools, he talks about “this tragic practice we have,” says Mohamed, chairman of the nonprofit American Somali Council in Falls Church, Va.
Kafia, a childhood friend of Mire’s who declines to give her last name, had never talked about her circumcision with her mother or anyone else.
But the film triggered a dialogue, she says. Her mother finally told her that she had lost sleep each time one of her six daughters was circumcised.
“I would have never known,” Kafia says.
On a warm February night in Santa Monica, “Fire Eyes” is about to screen as part of “Movie Nights,” an informal weekly gathering of independent filmmakers, film school grads and film buffs.
A tough gig.
At 5 foot 2, Mire floats into someone’s living room on a cloud of perfume, walking lightly on the tips of her feet like the dancer she once dreamed of becoming. She kisses cheeks, trades industry gossip and flirtatiously strokes a male friend’s long blond hair.
Then she retreats to await judgment. Just before she is introduced, her mood changes, her hands twist.
“I just want to run and hide,” Mire whispers to a friend.
About 50 people watch in rapt silence, except for an occasional gasp or cry of disbelief.
The credits roll to loud, sustained applause.
Later, George M. Sneed, a health care administrator, says he was so horrified that he left the room in mid-film.
“It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen,” says Sneed, a 40ish man in a gray suit. “It broke down that barrier between men and women.”
Tom Cloud, a 53-year-old physician, agrees, saying the film was all too real.
“I felt like I was being mutilated,” he says.
Film composer Jim Lang, 44, searches for words.
“As a man,” he says finally, “I watched that, and it made me feel really small.”
Mire moved to Malibu in June, 1994, after the death threats. She rents a small room in an oceanfront house on a cliff, surrounded by tall pines, ginkgo trees and aloe vera.
She lives off fees from speaking engagements and screenings. She won’t say how much “Fire Eyes” has made.
She is working on a new screenplay, a feature film on her life. She doesn’t know where the funding will come from but says she will find it.
Sometimes she works outside, cross-legged on a white wicker chair facing the water. She is distracted by dolphins in the surf and hummingbirds in the pink jasmine. Or she retreats to her room--no bigger than a large walk-in closet--and its cluttered desk.
Sometimes she wakes up screaming from nightmares about the day her mother tricked her, the sound of the doctor’s scissors ringing in her ears.
She has forgiven her mother, who is in her 70s. Neither parent has seen the film. The couple fled Somalia’s bloody civil war in 1991; they now live elsewhere in Africa. She rarely talks to her brothers and sisters, who have scattered around the world.
When she calls her parents to check on them, her mother barely speaks to her.
“You are nothing,” she says.
Her father is more understanding.
“You are an explorer,” he tells her.
She has had boyfriends, but no one special. End of subject.
“I’m very happy with my body, my sexuality,” she says. “I’m naked in front of the world about what happened to me, and whatever small privacy I have left about my sexuality, I want to keep to myself.”
In America, she can say what she wants.
“What I liked about here,” Mire says in a voice as warm as the Somali sun, “is you could speak out what you feel. You could let your anger out and no one is going to put you in jail.
“Back home, you talk about anything that denounces the culture or the government, whatever, you’re in jail, or you’ll be tortured, or something horrible will happen to your family. Here . . . I just knew, my God, I could do something, you know?”
Personal: Age 33. Single. Born in Somalia, lives in Malibu.
Passions: Dancing at home to New Age music, hikes on the beach, horror movies, sitting under the moon.
On her discovery in college that not every woman is circumcised: “Seeing this as a form of control, I started to understand what tradition is. Tradition is a law saying, ‘Don’t question me; this is what you have to do.’ I have a problem with that. . . . I said, ‘I don’t want to denounce all my culture and say I’m no longer African. I want to see what’s good in (Western) culture, so I could learn, I could grow.’ ”
On when she would tell a boyfriend about her circumcision: “I will look for the perfect time to let him know. I just wouldn’t announce it. If I tell, it’s like there’s no reason (to change things). ‘I’m the same person you fell in love with.’ If I tell him, and the person falls out of love, he’s not the right person for me.”
On having an erratic income: “It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it. As long as I have a clean bed and someplace to take a shower and my car works OK, I’m rich. The rest will come.”