The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
When I first came across The Dressmaker of Khair Khana back in April of this year, it piqued my interest on a couple of levels. First, I learned, this was a story of an incredible young woman who took on the immense and dangerous responsibility of providing for her entire family during the Taliban takeover of Kabul in September 1996. I was immediately interested on a personal level. But this was also a story of a brave entrepreneur whose efforts not only saved her own family from starvation, but encouraged and inspired countless other female entrepreneurs in her community, thereby creating the powerful ripple effect that has come to define the entrepreneurial process. Given the work Crossland has done partnering with Junior Achievement Worldwide in the area of youth entrepreneurship, I also became interested on a professional level.
While studying at Harvard Business School in 2005, former ABC news reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon flew to Afghanistan in search of stories of female entrepreneurs making a difference in their war-torn communities. It was here that Lemmon first heard about Kamila Sidiqi, a young woman who began a dressmaking business out of her home when the Taliban regime changed the rules overnight, making it impossible for women to work or attend school. Lemmon then spent three years on the ground capturing the details of Kamila’s story; Dressmaker is the final result of her work.
From the very first pages, I was captivated by the story Lemmon weaves together about Kamila, her ten brothers and sisters, and her loving parents who encouraged education above all else for their children … especially their nine girls. When the Taliban came, Kamila had just graduated from a teaching training institute and was poised for a career in academics. In a matter of hours, her dreams are thwarted by the new dictates of a regime determined to keep women in the shadows. With her parents having fled the city, along with an older brother, Kamila is left to care and provide for her six younger siblings left at home. Determined to find a way around the strict laws prohibiting women from working in the community, Kamila decides to learn how to sew and start a dressmaking business from behind closed doors.
The challenges Kamila faces in starting a business are plentiful, but none are as risky as the one she must face when she has to leave the safety of her courtyard to go into town and market her dresses at the local bazaars. Required to be accompanied by a mahram, or a male escort, Kamila and her brother brave the dangerous streets of Kabul day in and day out looking for buyers. Kamila becomes highly adept at bargaining, making deals, and growing her clientele, thereby increasing business and creating more work not only for her and her sisters, but for the now steady stream of local girls who gather at the Sidiqi house to sew and earn money to provide for their own families.
Kamila eventually has the idea to marry her teaching abilities with her newfound business acumen and starts a sewing school alongside the dressmaking business. In doing so, she brings opportunity to women who are yet unskilled in the art of tailoring and simultaneously ensures that there is work for any woman who knocks on her door looking for it. What’s particularly powerful about Kamila’s story is her continuous desire to help as many women in her community as possible … and her courage to push the envelope of the Taliban law just enough to ensure she’s able to continue to do so. Her accomplishments within the tight reigns of the regime are nothing short of amazing.
The final thought I was left with after turning the last page of this outstanding book was the often undervalued power of one. Here was one young woman who not only turned her own life around, but passed that empowerment on to many other women, creating a cycle of education and job creation that, in this case, meant the difference between life and death.
How many other stories are there of women who work in intrepid ways to pull their communities back together after war and other atrocities have torn their way of life apart? Lemmon suggests the number is countless, and dedicates the book to “all those women whose stories will never be told.” She suggests that Kamila’s story provides a new lens through which to view women from war-torn communities—instead of the traditional characterization of these women as victims of crimes committed by men, Lemmon argues that they should rather be seen and portrayed as “resilient survivors who deserve our respect.” May Lemmon’s work inspire more of these invaluable stories to be told.