Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The Dressmaker of Khair Kana
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Published 2011
Book Club

I read this book for my local (in person) book club.  It was a true story (written in story format) about a family of sisters living in Afghanistan, at a time when the Taliban came into power in their part of the country.  Laws changed drastically overnight, for women and girls, of course: they could no longer attend school, work outside of the home, leave the house without an escort (usually a male), and they had to wear the stupid chadri in public (see image).  

Chadri (Afghanistan)*
 *Don't tell me women WANT to wear this.  
Why don't men put a sheet over their head and try to live!  
Sorry, I'm inserting my emotions again.

To earn an income - essentially, to EAT - the main character, Kamila, turned her home into a shop and employed her sisters (and even a few neighborhood women and girls who needed work to earn a living, too) as seamstresses.  Kamila was instantly successful in finding shopkeepers in town to buy their dresses and suits, and soon she had a reputation as a savvy businesswoman.  

One day a bridal party, needing a wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses in only a few days, urgently approached her.  The bride was to marry a Taliban member.  Kamila understood that the Taliban now knew what she was doing in her home, and that they had accepted it, so long as she continued to keep a low profile and followed the rules for women. 

In addition to the political changes, several anxious events occurred during this time: Moussad, military leader of the Northern Resistance in Afghanistan, was assassinated, and September 11th, 2001, happened.  The assassination of Moussad meant the Taliban had a stronger hold on the country; and when the Taliban did not turn over Osama bin Laden, the United States began military attacks on Afghanistan.  Kamila and her family lived and worked anxiously under these conditions.

But there was a good turn of events, too.  Due to Kamila's clever and courageous entrepreneurship, U.N. Habitat, an institution in Afghanistan seeking to recruit women for a work project, approached her.  With permission by the Mob - I mean, Taliban - the organization would be able to teach girls the value of work (after the Taliban prohibited it).  Kamila's family was against her working with Habitat because . . . FEAR.  Rules changed every day, and one never knew when the Taliban would lash out at a woman for breaking a law that was suddenly altered.  

Once she was stopped at a checkpoint while traveling to Pakistan with Habitat.  Because they did not have a male escort, the Taliban threatened them with arrest and questioned their loyalty as Muslims.  With an AK-47 pointed at her forehead, Kamila used her cleverness to talk their way out of the predicament.  Her experiences had taught her that the Taliban could be reasoned with, "as long as one was polite, firm, and respectful."

Well, because of the attacks in Afghanistan by the U.S., the Taliban were on the run, and many cities were freed from their stronghold.  For some reason, men immediately shaved their beards, but women were still apprehensive about ditching the chadri.  FEAR.

Kamila continued her work with Habitat in her country, but next moved to international outreach within the United Nations and with global aid, Mercy Corps.  She was invited to participate in a two-week MBA program for Afghan businesswomen in the United States, and she even met Condoleezza Rice, who invited her to Washington D.C., to tell her own story to members of Congress, business people, and diplomats.  

Condelezza Rice and Kamila Sadiqi

But Kamila's desire was or has always been to help the people in her country, to educate them and create job opportunity, especially for women.  She said,
Money is power for women.  If women have their own income to bring to the family, they can contribute and make decisions.  Their bothers, their husbands, and their entire families will have respect for them.  It's so important in Afghanistan because women have always had to ask for money from men.  if we can give them some training, and an ability to earn a good salary, then we can change their lives and help their families.
It is a good story; unfortunately, it isn't riveting storytelling.  Nonetheless, I am really glad I read Kamila's point of view.  She is a remarkable woman.  She could have lived in utter FEAR, but she did not.  She stood out.  However, I do wonder about all of those women who do live in FEAR, under those regimes, whose stories are not being told?  I wish someone would tell those stories, too.

Kamila Sadiqi, 2005


  1. I have not commented on your literary blog for a while because for some reason I was no longer getting your posts in my e mail. So I have re-subscribed.

    This is a very interesting review. Sometimes books don't have to be riveting to inform us and I think that we Westerners need to be more cognizant of what's going on in Islamic countries.

    1. That happens. It happened to me, trying to receive email updates from a friend's blog. I re-subscribed, too, but I still get nothing. ????

      Anyway, yes, I agree. That is why I am glad I read it. I do wish there were more stories like this about those whose voices always get lost in history, including those who aren't as successful as Kamila. They still have something to say. And it is always good to read about stories from people who live differently than we do, like walking in someone else's shoes. That is always enlightening. It helps us see that we are not all that different.

      Thanks for your comment!