When journalist Gayle Lemmon was looking for a subject that hadn’t already been given a lot of news coverage, she became intrigued by the topic of female entrepreneurs working in war zones. Travelling to post-Taliban Afghanistan, Lemmon intended to report on women who were running their own businesses. Unfortunately finding female business owners at first proved more difficult than she had expected, but eventually she heard about Kamila Sidiqi. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, subtitled Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe, Lemmon tells Sidiqi’s amazing story.
After receiving her teacher training certificate from college in 1996, Kamila Sidiqi was looking forward to going to university and becoming a teacher like her elder sisters, when the Taliban took control of Kabul and everything changed almost overnight. Suddenly women found their freedom stripped away from them. Required to wear the chadri (full-length burqa) and unable to go outdoors without being accompanied by a male relative, the options available for a woman to earn her living became very limited.
Trying to find a way of making money that would still comply with the Taliban’s rules, Kamila decided to set herself up as a seamstress, making clothes in her own living room and selling them to local tailor’s shops. As the weeks and months went by, Kamila’s dressmaking business grew in size and reputation until eventually she and her sisters and several of their neighbours were working round the clock to meet their orders. Kamila also came up with the idea of starting a school to teach other girls from the neighbourhood the basics of dressmaking, enabling them to support themselves and their families.
Throughout the book you can never forget the danger Kamila was in and the risks she was taking. For example, there’s a frightening moment where she and two female friends are caught taking a bus to Pakistan without their mahram (male companion). Kamila’s courage and quick-thinking really shines through in situations like this.
Lemmon has a nice clear writing style, and the book is as easy to read as fiction. As well as being a fascinating story, I also found The Dressmaker of Khair Khana completely inspiring. Kamila and her sisters refused to be defeated, searched for solutions to every problem and managed to prosper despite the oppressive conditions they were forced to live under.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011. I received a review copy as an ebook from NetGalley.