It is 1996. The Taliban have entered Kabul. All the men who were affiliated with previous regimes are in danger of being imprisoned or executed, while all draft-age young men are likely to be conscripted, so your father, a career military man, and your older brother have gone to the family farm in the north of Afghanistan, and your mother has gone with them. You are a 19-year-old who had just received her teaching certificate, the oldest of the five children left at home in the city; your father has instructed you to stay there and take care of them, but money is running low. Women must wear chadris (burkas) and be accompanied by mahrams, escorts who are male members of their families, if they venture out on the street. They are not allowed to work or go to school. What do you do?
Well, if you’re Kamila Sidiqi, you start a dressmaking enterprise, and go on to employ about 100 women and girls in your community who are in similar circumstances, making high-quality special-occasion dresses, pantsuits and wedding dresses. When you first have the idea, you don’t even know how to sew, but your sister Malika is a gifted seamstress, and she teaches you, then you set up a school in your living room to train others who want to work with you. Local shopkeepers can no longer afford to import clothes from abroad, and they’re happy to find a good supplier nearby. You are careful to abide by the rules of the new normal, and your business succeeds, sustaining many families throughout the Taliban period.
Now, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has written a book, “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” (HarperCollins), about Sidiqi, her family and her business, based in the Kabul neighborhood of the title. The book is currently on the New York Times bestseller list. Lemmon — a former ABC News producer who first began seeking out women entrepreneurs in conflict or post-conflict zones while at Harvard Business School and originally came to Afghanistan in 2005 to write about such women for the Financial Times — says that Sidiqi initially had difficulty believing that there was anything unusual about what she had done. But Lemmon feels strongly that stories about men in combat are by no means the only important tales about war. Women are the ones who endure and, at times, even flourish under such circumstances. “Women are not just victims in war, they’re survivors to be respected, and it’s time to change the discussion,” she says.
When women talked to Lemmon about working for the Sidiqis during the Taliban years, it became clear, she says, “how much these jobs had meant to them.” She goes on to add, “It was the only place that didn’t feel like war. While they were working, they were swapping gossip, talking about fashion, talking about movies, and talking about ‘Titanic.’ Although it was forbidden, everybody had seen ‘Titanic,’ and everybody was in love with Leonardo DiCaprio. They had no place to go to be out together in public.”
One day, three women came by who wanted to get a bride’s two wedding dresses — with very little decoration — and four gowns for other members of the wedding party, all made in one day. The Sidiqis obliged, and when the women left with their completed dresses, they were picked up in vehicles with very distinctive markings: Q’uranic verses. The wedding party were members of the Taliban — thus the ultra-simple wedding dresses.
The man who paid the bill gave the Sidiqis a little more than they’d asked. They were delighted; this meant that, not only did the Taliban know about their enterprise, they approved.
Today, Kamila is married to a cousin and has two young children; she runs Kaweyan, a business consultancy in Kabul, and goes around the country teaching entrepreneurship to both literate and illiterate people, Lemmon says. Kamila has paid for the education of most of her other siblings.
Lemmon, a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, is also married with a baby son. What is the situation in Afghanistan like today? “I think I’m most pessimistic about that when I’m in the U.S.,” she says. “People are so disappointed with this war. It’s a very delicate issue, how to come up with a future peace deal, and the question of security remains the biggest one, since there’s continued war in the south. I think that women will continue to fight for their rights, and they’re afraid that their rights will be used as fodder for negotiations for peace.”
Afghani women just don’t want to have their rights eroded, to see their situations go back to the way they were under the Taliban. After all, Lemmon notes, there were years when “the whole world forgot them, but they took care of themselves, because nobody else was going to do it.”