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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.

March 12, 1995|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 13, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Sunday profile--In some editions of Sunday's Life & Style, the photo credit for the Page 1 picture of Soraya Mire was incorrect. The photographer was Lori Shepler.

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. Last month, 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."

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