Whenever I talk about The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
, people inevitably ask, "What it was like to travel and work in Afghanistan?" People want to know what it was like being a foreigner and in particular, what it was like being a woman?
To put it simply: It was tough. As I started making more frequent, lengthy trips to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, the security situation deteriorated. And while Americans became more focused on domestic issues, such as the economy and the national presidential election, violence in Afghanistan intensified.
There were frequent stories of reporters and foreigners from the U.S., France, Italy, and Japan being abducted. One day I was working in downtown Kabul conducting interviews for The Dressmaker, and I had turned off my cell phone because I didn't want to be interrupted. When I turned my phone back on at the end of the day, I received a frantic call from the U.S. embassy asking if I was the freelance journalist who was kidnapped? Danger was a daily reality and my time there forced me to face my own mortality. I had friends and colleagues who were injured or killed as attacks against reporters and aid workers continued. In October 2009, Taliban militants attacked a guesthouse used by United Nations workers in central Kabul, then in October 2010 suicide terrorists bombed the main UN compound in Herat.
I had been advised by security specialists to travel with bodyguards carrying weapons. But I refused to do so. I knew that drawing attention to myself was the worst way to protect the people I was interviewing. I did what I could to help. I dressed conservatively and often was the dowdiest person I met all day. I wore plain, loosely fitting black clothing with traditional headscarves. Being a woman was sometimes very useful. As a woman I could get away with not speaking at check-points and my loyal and trustworthy "fixer" Mohamad could speak on my behalf. I was also able to gain access to women's stories, which male reporters would never have the opportunity to hear. However, at the same time I could also speak with men because, despite being a woman, I was first and foremost a foreigner.
Although the security situation in Afghanistan was volatile, I continued working on The Dressmaker because it was a story that needed to be told. I knew the dangers that I faced while in Afghanistan were nothing in comparison to what these women had risked on a daily basis to survive, risks that they themselves do not see as extraordinary. But as The Dressmaker of Khair Khana shows, their courage, tenacity, and passion is truly incredible.
One encounter in particular put this in perspective for me. During an interview, I asked a young woman, "What was life like for you under the Taliban?" Her response was, "What was it like? They stole five years of my life from me." She had wanted to go Turkey to study and become a professor, but the Taliban came to power and her dreams were squashed. By the time they left in 2001, she was older and had to get married. At this point in the interview, she then broke down and said, "All I will ever be now is an assistant... that is not the work I was meant to do."
It is stories like hers and Kamila's that drove me to finish this book. The women of Afghanistan have a voice, and it needs to be heard and not forgotten. As pressure increases for a peace agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban, women in Afghanistan fear that they will be left behind. In interview after interview, Afghan women say they are desperate for peace and talk about welcoming Taliban brothers back into their communities. But they insist that the cost should not be their daughters' schooling or their own ability to earn money for their families.
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