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Book: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, a Newyork Times bestseller, was written by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.  Till date, she has written three books - The Dressmaker of Khair Khana (2011), Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2015) and The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice (2021), dealing with women's entrepreneurship, women in battlefield, child and forced marriages in Syria and Afghanistan. She dons multiple hats of an author, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, producer and journalist.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is the story of Kamila Sidiqi, a women student who became an entrepreneur when Kabul entered into a politically unsafe situation under the Taliban rule. 

Passion for journalism made Lemmon, a second year MBA graduate travel to Kabul in the year 2005. She was always on look for subjects rich with stories no one else covered. Stories that really matter to the world. She has prior experience of reporting on women who rebuilt Rwanda's (an African country) economy after a massacre. So she set out to Kabul to find how war impacted the lives of women, an angle never thought of. 

After days of search, Lemmon finally knew about Kamila Sidiqi, a young dressmaker turned entrepreneur. She conducted countless interactions and interviews with and about Kamila, to document the rise of an young lady entrepreneur in Afghanistan. 

So what is the story of Kamila? In Sept 1996, Kamila received her Teaching Training Certificate and was on her way back home. She planned to finish bachelor's degree and start her teaching career within a couple of years. But by then, the situation in Kabul wasn't the same as before the 1990s - women had lot of restrictions in the public place, separate work areas, modest dressing; frequent firing, broken water system, crumbled buildings and highly endangered and volatile civic life. 

Kamila rushes back home as she overhears her classmates talking about the Taliban's arrival in Kabul. The state of affairs changed overnight - entertainment like music, movies, television; games like chess, cards and even kite flying; modern clothing and haircuts; shaving beards were banned. Women weren't allowed to study and work and were confined to home. If they have to step out, they should be fully covered head to toe and accompanied by a male family member. Otherwise they were ruthless tortured leading up to capital punishment.

Kamila's father Sidiqi has served the previous government, so he had to flee the country as his life was in danger. Sooner her elder brother left Kabul in search of job in nearby countries and her mother to live with her father, leaving Kamila in charge of all her siblings. With dwindling food reserve and money, Kamila knows her family couldn't survive longer and wants to do something for their livelihood. She learns dress making from her elder sister, reaches out to sellers in the nearby market and delivers them women dresses under a fake name 'Roya' to conceal her identity. Otherwise not only she, but her entire family might as well die in the hands of the new regime. As work orders keep pouring, all her sisters pick up the skill and get involved in dress making. 

Slowly as a word of mouth, the women in the neighbourhood reach out to Kamila for livelihood. **Everyone who had remained in Kabul had a similar story,....Her father had told her, and her religion had taught her, that she had a duty to support as many as she was able. .....This business was her best—and right now her only hope for helping her community. ** She doesn't turn down anyone. She welcomed, trained and gave work to everyone knocked her door. Her home become a training center as well as their work place. She built a network of dressmakers in her locality, Khair Khana.

In due course, UN Centre for human settlements reach out to Kamila to become a part of their community forum which works for women's education, health care and help them set up small scale businesses. Despite knowing the political hardships involved, Kamila joins them so that she could help a larger group of women. After the Sept 11 attacks, America invaded Kabul. The whole city was under fire. Khair Khana became a graveyard. 

** Kamila depended on her faith to help her endure the terrifying offensive and stay strong for her younger sisters. She prayed for her country, which had known nothing but war and bloodshed for her entire life. Despite the fighting that now engulfed her home and her city, she wanted to believe that whatever came next, the future would be brighter. 

Peace and a chance to pursue our dreams, Kamila thought to herself one night when it seemed there would be no end to the blasts that rocked the earth beneath her.**

Following America's invasion the Taliban troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Kamila began to train business teachers and delivered leading courses in entrepreneurship around the country. She started her own construction business, attended a two-week MBA program for Afghan businesswomen in the US and was eventually invited by Condolezza Rice, the American State Secretary to tell her story to the Congress, businessmen and diplomats. Kamila started Kaweyan to train women who never had a chance to study and help start their own business.

Needless to say, The dressmaker of Khair Khana is a very inspiring read. What I like the most is its focus on the hardships faced by women in the wake of a war. There are many stories that have glorified men as soldiers, diplomats or leaders, but none on the women who managed to keep the family together when their world fell apart. Till date, Kabul is a place foreigners like me know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage. By documenting Kamila's life, Lemmon has brought into life the story of unsung women warriors like Kamila, who will go on, no matter what. Besides, it brings out the importance of girl child's education and woman's financial freedom in redefining not just a family, but an entire nation's development.

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** Excerpts from the book


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