Book review: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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When the Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996, thousands of women saw their lives transformed... overnight, they were banned from schools and offices and even forbidden from leaving home on their own.

Afghanistan’s economy collapsed, young men left the capital city in search of work and safety, and times were desperate for the remaining women who had been allowed a certain amount of freedom in the preceding years.

Nineteen-year-old Kamila Sidiqi had only recently qualified as a teacher and now her dreams and ambitions were cut cruelly short. Suddenly, her world would operate within the confines of three life-changing edicts announced by the Taliban:

‘Women will stay at home. Women are not permitted to work. Women must wear the chadri [full body covering] in public.’

How was she going to help her family and support her brothers and sisters if she couldn’t step out of her house?

Kamila’s amazing true story gets a very welcome public airing in former ABC News producer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s inspiring and uplifting account of extraordinary courage and ingenuity in the face of adversity.

Against all the odds, Kamila began a sewing business in her own living room, little guessing that it would soon create jobs and hope for one hundred women in the neighbourhood and mean the difference between starvation and survival.

Lemmon unearthed Kamila’s tale of entrepreneurship in 2005 when she was studying at Harvard Business School and focusing on women who work in war zones. She became determined to portray women as resilient survivors who demand our respect, rather than as victims deserving only our sympathy.

She travelled to Afghanistan where she found the ‘mad jumble of barely managed chaos that was Kabul’ and began digging for a business heroine.

Kamila Sidiqi and her fellow dressmakers embodied everything she had been looking for ... Afghan women who supported each other when the world outside had forgotten them, helped to bring together their struggling communities and reshaped their own future in the process.

The women’s efforts and achievements are all the more remarkable in the knowledge that just talking or trading with ‘foreigners’ could bring punishment from the Taliban and even lead to their husbands divorcing them.

Lemmon’s powerful book takes us to the heart of the oppression faced by Afghan women under Taliban rule but also celebrates Kamila’s endless determination and resourcefulness in her mission to care for her siblings.

What the author found in Kabul was a sisterhood unlike any she had seen before, one marked by ‘empathy, laughter, courage, curiosity about the world, and above all a passion for work.’

A moving and must-read book...

(John Murray, paperback, £8.99)