The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Celebrating the Unsung Heroines and the Unlikely Entrepreneurs of the Taliban YearsPosted by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, March 14, 2011 11:32 am 1 Comment Filed under: Guests.
In December of 2005, I set off for Afghanistan to find a story that no one was writing about. I wanted to write about a story that mattered to the world, and one that would change the way the world sees women. That story belonged to Kamila Sidiqi, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
When I first met Kamila in 2005, she was a passionate, eloquent businesswoman who believed deeply in the power of business to create a safer, stronger Afghanistan. She told me that "money is power for women" because when women earn a living they also change their lives by winning the respect of their families. The mission of her latest start-up, Kaweyan, was to teach people — both men and women — about marketing and business, and to help Afghans start their own businesses which would be there far longer than foreign aid.
When I asked her how she knew so much about business, she gave me an answer that shocked me.
"Oh," she said, "I had an excellent business under the Taliban. We did a lot of good for our community."
I asked her to go on, fascinated by her most unexpected answer. This was the moment that launched a five-year journey to bring her story to readers.
When the Taliban came to Kabul in September of 1996 nearly every opportunity to earn a living ended for women. Overnight women who worked and went to school could no longer do either.
When Kamila's father and brother were forced to flee the city for security's sake, Kamila found herself a nineteen-year-old at the head of her home with brothers and sisters relying on her for support. So, she did the only thing she could do: she became an entrepreneur.
Together with her sisters, Kamila created a thriving dressmaking business from her family's living room. In time, that business became a lifeline not just for Kamila's own family but much of their community, providing jobs and hope for the women of Khair Khana.
Dangers were very real and very present. Just leaving the house, even with her young brother as her chaperon, carried risks. The Taliban's feared foot soldiers, the "Vice and Virtue" force, patrolled the streets of Kabul and Kamila's neighborhood looking for men and especially women who defied their rules. Even letting a wrist slip out from under the newly mandatory burqa could result in a public beating. Kamila constantly wove in and around the restrictions of the period because she felt she had no choice: like so many women all around the world, she knew her family counted on her and she could not let them down.
I have always been drawn to the work of women in war zones. These unsung heroines pull families through impossible times simply with the strength of their own courage and conviction. I saw immediately that Kamila's story was a universal one of love, sacrifice, bravery and the risks we take for the sake of those we love. Women around the world lead their families through impossible times every day, all around the world, with no one paying attention. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana celebrates them. And I hope it will change the way the world sees women.
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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a Fellow and Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has written extensively about women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones around the world. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is her first book. She lives in Los Angeles.
Books mentioned in this post
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe