Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Gayle Lemmon came to Afghanistan in the winter of 2005. She was on winter break during her second year of an MBA at Harvard Business School when she decided that she wanted to act on her desire to write about stories no one else was covering. The stories Lemmon thought she might want to tell were those of women working in war zones. Previously she had written a piece about women entrepreneurs in Rwanda - a country whose male population was completely decimated as a result of the genocide.

In 2005, Lemmon arrived in Kabul looking for the stories of women who had survived the numerous wars, invasions and cultural changes of Afghanistan. She was looking for women who had not just survived the Soviets, the Taliban and the post-Taliban eras but those who had successfully initiated entrepreneurial projects.
"Most stories about war and its aftermath inevitably focus on men: the soldiers, the returning veterans, the statesmen. I wanted to know what war was like for those who had been left behind: the women who managed to keep going even as their world fell apart. War reshapes women's lives and often unexpectedly forces them - unprepared - into the role of breadwinner. Charged with their family's survival, they invent ways to provide for their children and communities."

Initially the author was looking for a story about Afghan women post 9/11 and what sort of businesses these women were developing. Eventually she learned of Kamila Sidiqui, a young entrepreneur who got her start as a dressmaker during the Taliban regime. Sidiqui, whose family is Tajik, Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group, lives in Khair Khana, a northern suburb of Kabul. Her father, Woja Abdul Sidiqi whose family hailed from Parwan in the north, was a senior military officer for the Afghan army.Together, he and his wife Ruhasva were the parents of 11 children, nine of them girls!

Essentially the Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of Kamila Sidiqi as she struggles to survive during the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan beginning in 1996. Sidiqi's story wouldn't be so exceptional if it weren't for the fact that she overcame enormous obstacles - ones North American women couldn't even comprehend, in the most imaginative and determined way.

Sidiqi's story begins at the point where she has just received her teaching certificate from Sayed Jamaluddin Teacher Training Institute and is about to commence her studies at Kabul Pedagogical Institute, a coed university in the capital. It is 1996. Afghanistan is rocked by civil war now that the Soviets have left. The triumphant Mujahideen are now fighting amongst themselves for control of the capital, Kabul. And it is the Taliban who are winning control over more and more areas of the country.

Kamila's hope was to earn a bachelor's degree and eventually become a professor of Dari or literature. If the Taliban win and take over Kabul, Kamila realizes that this will not happen. She has heard rumours that when a city is overtaken by the Taliban the women must leave school and cannot even leave their homes unless they are accompanied by a mahram. Taliban controlled cities require women to wear the full length burqua, known in Dari as a chadri. When the Taliban finally do overrun Kabul, all this comes to pass.
Kabulis watched helplessly as the Taliban began reshaping the cosmopolitan capital according to their utopian vision of seventh-century Islam. Almost immediately they instituted a brutal - and effective - system of law and order. Accused thieves had one hand and one foot cut off, and their severed limbs were hung from posts on street corners as a warning to others...Then they banned everything they regarded as a distraction from the duty of worship: music, long a part of Afghan culture, and movies, television, card playing, the game of chess, and even kite flying, the popular Friday afternoon pastime....
But of all the changes the Taliban brought, the most painful and demoralizing were the ones that would fundamentally transform the lives of Kamila, her sisters, and all the women in their city. The newly issued edicts commanded: Women will stay at home. Women are not permitted to work. Women must wear the chadri in public."
The effect on the women of Kabul and even on Afghan society itself was disastrous. Girl's schools closed and women vanished from the streets. Forty percent of civil servants and more than half of the teachers in Kabul were women. They were now unemployed. For families headed by widows the consequences were particularly devastating. Many of these women were the sole support for their families, often having lost their husbands in the many years of war. These families had lost their principal breadwinner. The loss of so many workers also affected the general day to day running of the government.

Many families decide to leave Kabul for Pakistan or Iran, but the Sidiqi family decides to stay. Eventually Mr. Sidiqi decides to move to his hometown of Gulbahar in Parwan and his wife eventually follows. They decide that it is too dangerous for the remaining daughters to travel north so they will remain in Kabul. But it is clear that Kamila and her sisters need to find a way to support themselves. What they initially thought would be a short-lived edict restricting women in society, was now becoming ridiculously entrenched with further rules such as prohibitions against walking in the middle of the street, mixing with strangers, wearing chadri which showed the outline of arms or legs, or going out without a mahram (male relative). What Kamila needed was "a plan that would allow her to earn money while staying within the Taliban's rules...."

Kamila decided tostart her own dressmaking venture. She had her older sister Malika teach her how to sew and how to use a sewing machine and then she and her sisters prepared samples of dresses to take to shop-keepers with the intent of securing orders. Her younger brother Hajeeb was her mahram and together the two of them were able to navigate through the Taliban rules to start a flourishing dressmaking business. Eventually, the business expanded to teaching other women how to sew and how to set up their own businesses.

Kamila was eventually asked by two Afghan women who worked for UN Habitat to join Community Forums in which women took part in jobs and social programs they designed and supervised. Profits earned were redirected back into the forums to fund more projects. The Taliban allowed these forums as long as only women participated but this was still a risk for Kamila. But Kamila's desire to help other women especially when the need was so great meant she could not refuse.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Kamila has focused on women and business, training women in microfinance, and in entrepreneurship. Eventually she launched her own company, Kaweyan which is responsible for training people how to turn their ideas into a business plan.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a story of one woman's desire to help not only herself but other women too and of her brilliant accomplishments. It was amazing to read how these young women helped each other - their wonderful warmth and deep concern for neighbours and those around them. Whenever women in need came to the Sidiqui house, the family always responded by taking them in to work.

Lemmon has told Kamila Sidiqi's story because in her own words,
"Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed."

Book Details:
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
New York: Harper Collins Publishers 2011
256 pp.

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