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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The fruit of painstaking on-the-ground research from one of the most volatile conflict zones of the world, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will appeal to anyone who likes a well-told, inspirational story.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (Harper, March 2011)

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a former ABC News reporter and Harvard MBA, writes in her introduction about her passion for stories about women who work in war zones, describing their work as “a particularly intrepid and inspiring form of entrepreneurship.” Kamila Sidiqi is such a woman from Taliban-ruled Kabul whose story of courage and resilience inspired the author to write this book. While based entirely on facts, the story of this woman from the Khair Khana suburb of Kabul is told with a charming simplicity and an evident facility in the storyteller’s art and reads like an accomplished work of fiction.

When Taliban troops rolled into Kabul in 1996, they brought with them a particularly rigorous (some might say oppressive) form of Islamic rule, which—among other things—had a telling impact on the lives of women, banned them from schools and offices, prevented them from venturing out without a chadri (a kind of burqa) and without a mahram or male escort.

Matters were somewhat more serious for Kamila and her five sisters. Their family were of the ethnic Tajik minority and her father had worked under the former Soviet-installed president Najibullah (whom the Taliban hanged in public) as well as with Ahmad Shah Massoud, at the time the Northern Alliance commander (and principal enemy of the Taliban). Fearing their safety, her parents and elder brother had to flee their home soon after the Taliban, who drew their ranks from ethnic Pashtuns, took over the city. The teenaged Kamila was left in charge of her sisters and younger brother.

Showing amazing courage in the face of adversity and a winning entrepreneurial spirit, Kamila—helped by her elder sister Malika—took up dressmaking to feed her family and provide for her brother’s education. Slowly and painstakingly she expanded her business, providing employment to many girls from her neighborhood while starting training programs for seamstresses. While her business acumen is notable in its own right, her gritty leadership and her determination to help the needy even at great personal risk, make for an inspiring read.

Nurtured in the traditions of a benevolent Islam which enjoins a duty to help those in need, Kamila cut a rough but determined path through the fraught landscape of Taliban-administered Kabul. The contrasting interpretations of faith and their concomitant cultural registers provide useful markers helping readers grasp the context and uniqueness of Kamila’s story.

The rulers’ faith and its interpretations, derived from the northern Indian Deobandi tradition and brewed further in refugee camps and madrassas of Pakistan, were particularly rigid; they passed rules that banned music and dance and more or less confined women to their homes. After the Taliban takeover, the dreaded foot soldiers of the Amr bil-Maroof wa Nahi al-Munkir (the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice) patrolled the streets of Kabul and meted out on-the-spot punishment to violators.

Kamila’s family on the contrary was raised on the Persian literary heritage and the mystical Islamic traditions; her sisters read the poetry of Rumi and Hafez and secretly exchanged Persian detective stories with their friends. Citywide, the arrival of the Taliban was marked by a clampdown on “modernity” in all forms from western dresses to movies and television; their departure after the US-led campaign was celebrated with Indian movie songs blaring from shops and stalls and men shaving off their beards in public.

Through these turbulent and stricken times, Kamila Sidiqi was steadfast in her resolve and continued slowly expanding her dressmaking business from one day to the next. She faced great hardship and even mortal danger in her quest to help her people and that she was finally rewarded for her determination makes this a touching and memorable story. As the author mentions in her acknowledgments: “during the years of research and reporting on the story of Kamila and her sisters, I learned just how many young women went to work each day on behalf of their families during the Taliban years despite being shut out of classrooms and offices. The efforts of these unheralded heroines … meant the difference between survival and starvation for many families.”

There are many more Kamilas in Afghanistan. The significance of the struggles of these women and their hard-won freedom will not be lost on anyone who contemplates possible futures for this troubled nation.

Rajat Chaudhuri is the author of the novel Amber Dusk.