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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe » User review

A wonderful different look into Afghanistan - that of women entrepreneurs

  • Mar 12, 2011

With a start Malika realized that the figure huddled in front of them was a woman. She lay in the middle of the street, crouched in a ball, and was trying to fend off the blows. But the men would not stop. Malika heard the dreadful slapping sound of the wooden batons as they hit the helpless woman -- on her back, her legs, over and over again.
The author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, was an MBA student at Harvard Business School, when she yearned to do some research in a subject that mattered but which no one cared for much. That brought her to the topic of women entrepreneurship in war-torn Rwanda, and then to Afghanistan. Her initial search efforts in Kabul raised no potential candidates. It was after a long hunt that she found the protagonist of this biography and this book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is her attempt to tell the story of that woman entrepreneur.

Kamila Sadiqi was just returning home after receiving her diploma when she overheard many rumors about the Taliban's arrival at the outskirts of the city, fully intending to take control. The past four years wasn't the safest period for Kamila and her sisters, but their father was every bit insistent that the girls be educated. "The pen is stronger than the sword" - he loved to say. He had grown up watching European women work side-by-side with men, and he wanted his girls (and two boys) to be educated and capable of looking after themselves and their family in any dire situation.

But with the Taliban's arrival, a lot of avenues close up. Girls and women were forced to wear the chadri (the full-length burkha with just a tiny latticed slit for them to see through); they couldn't step out of their homes without a mahram, a male familial companion, and they weren't allowed to converse with any man who is not family. That figuratively shut them in their own homes. Those who didn't follow the rules were beaten ruthlessly. Kamila's parents were originally from the north and her father had worked for the previous government. This made their lives even less safe, prompting her father, her mother, and finally one of her brothers to leave to the north. Only Kamila, her youngest brother and her sisters were left behind.

Perhaps the only aspect that I didn't understand was how these girls - of whom only one was married and living separately with her husband and children, and also happened to be pregnant with twins, and Kamila, the elder of the rest was herself just seventeen - were left behind by their family. It was not safe outside, the author has reiterated time and again. Kamila's father has also explained that the girls were safer at home, but the menfolk weren't, because they were either put in prisoner camps (esp if they were found to have had worked for the previous government), or sent to the front lines to battle. And it was dangerous to move the whole family together. But I felt it was even riskier to leave the girls home alone, since they could barely get out of the home at risk of being beaten or taken to jail, and their only mahram was a thirteen-year old boy, too young to take responsibility (though Rahim proves to be so much more dependable, to be honest).

Since their funds are running real low now, Kamila comes up with a really risky idea to start a tailoring business. If she is caught, it can mean a lot of danger for herself, her mahram (Rahim), the shopkeepers who place orders, and her sisters. But Kamila being as stubborn as she is, she goes ahead with her plan. After a few initial misgivings, her sisters, who have been feeling lacklustre from nothing to do, jump into the opportunity. But everyone was having the same thought - how long will this continue?

Kamila is clearly a really strong woman, endowed with not just determination, but also a strong set of business skills that come in real handy and are even necessary. Gayle writes a really inspiring account of this young woman's life and those of her hard-working sisters, especially her older sister - Malika. I spent page after page rooting for the girls, hoping that none of the terrible danger befalls them. I'm not going to spoil it for you by saying what happens - you should find it out.

While not one of the best biographies I've lately read on this topic, the story is no less inspirational. This is a fast and short read - only occasionally the writing disappointed me. One really sad consequence of the war in Afghanistan is the warped perspective that we have all developed as outsiders. Most of our opinions have been shaped by the statements of the warring governments, the media, the Taliban, the soldiers/fighters. Amidst all this din, the voices of the civilians actually stuck in the war have been very subdued. I've always wondered - how did the women feel about wearing the burkha? How did they accept the no-education-only-housework role? Didn't they yearn for freedom, to be heard, accepted for who they were, loved? How did they settle into this kind of life? Probably the most revealing fact was that these women had never seen or even owned a burkha until the Taliban came by. Until then, they were quite adventurous women - who partied in stylish western wear, educated themselves to be doctors, teachers, etc, and were very very respected by men.

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April 26, 2011
This sounds like something I'd love to read! I've been involved with RAWA (Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan) since 1998 and have always been inspired by the strength of Afghan women. To answer your question, many didn't accept the no-education role and created schools 6 feet underground so that they may learn and teach their youngsters. The burqa is incredibly hot and itchy, and that was only in 80 degree California weather, I can't imagine that it'd be much more fun in Afghanistan heat. There's actually quite an interesting history- you should check out www.rawa.org for more info! Great review, by the way ;p
May 31, 2011
Wow.. I'm impressed that underground schools were created. I'm also glad that the "invasion" wasn't so easily accepted. I'm going to check out that website. Btw, kudos to you for your work with RAWA!!
May 31, 2011
Thanks! Definitely check it out...we can always use more volunteers :) Let me know if you need any more info!
More The Dressmaker of Khair Khana:... reviews
review by . January 26, 2011
There are many sources indicating that one of the best ways to lift poorer nations out of poverty is to provide small loans to people, primarily women that will allow them to start their own small businesses. This nurturing of the entrepreneurship inherent in all societies will provide local employment and the chance for the people to actively make their own future.    This book describes one such group of female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. They are tailors and their story begins at …
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The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war—a rare achievement for any Afghan woman—Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the incredible true story of this unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community under the Taliban. Former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years on the ground reporting Kamila's story, and the result is an unusually intimate and unsanitized look at the daily lives of women in Afghanistan. These women are not victims; they are the glue that holds families together; they are the backbone and the heart of their nation. Afghanistan's future remains uncertain as debates over withdrawal timelines dominate the news.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana moves beyond the headlines to transport you to an Afghanistan you have never seen before. This is a story of war, but it is also a story of sisterhood and resilience in the face of despair. Kamila Sidiqi's journey will inspire you, but it will also change the way you think about one of the most important political and humanitarian issues of our time.

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ISBN-10: 0061732370
ISBN-13: 978-0061732379
Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Harper
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