Celebrating Unsung Heroines: “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana”

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

In 2005 I traveled to Afghanistan to write a newspaper story about women entrepreneurs, women who turned to business to create jobs and hope for their families. I wanted to find a story that no one was writing about, a story that mattered. That story was Kamila Sidiqi.

I interviewed Kamila for the first time on a December afternoon in Kabul.  Though she had not yet turned 30 she already was on her third company, a consultancy which taught entrepreneurship skills to Afghans around the country.  She spoke with great passion about the power of business to change her country and give the next generation of Afghans a chance at a better life.
When I asked her how such a young woman had come to know so much about business, she gave me an answer which startled me: Oh, she said, I had a terrific business during the Taliban which did a lot of good in my community.
That answer set off a five-year journey which led to “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” a book which tells the true story of Kamila and the young women like her who become breadwinners during years in which they weren’t even supposed to be on the streets.
When security concerns forced her father and brother to leave the city Kamila became the head of her family. Barred from school and unable to work, Kamila did the only thing she could, she became an entrepreneur. She and her four sisters began a dressmaking business in their living room which ended up offering hope and jobs to 100 women in their Kabul neighborhood.  What began as a lifeline for Kamila’s became a source of support for their community, providing training and work for the women of Khair Khana.   
What I learned over the five years it took to finish this book was that Kamila wasn’t the only one. Though we are far more used to seeing women in Afghanistan as victims to be pitied rather than survivors to be respected, the truth was that many women had become breadwinners during years of intense oppression and economic devastation. They navigated the laws and the dangers of the Taliban years for the sake of those they loved. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana honors not only Kamila’s work, but the work of women across the world, the unsung heroines who pull their families through the impossible times every day and never get credit for it.  We are so used to seeing women’s stories as ‘feel good’ and  ‘soft’. But what is easier, shooting up a window or getting a broom, sweeping up the pieces, and putting up a tarp where the window once was? And yet, it is these stories of women, who pick up the pieces and lead families through difficult times, which we view as ‘soft.’ Until we see women as resources worthy of investment, we will not change the conversation—or the world.
Security deteriorated during the years I spent reporting this story.  Kidnappings and bombings became regular parts of our days as my colleague Mohamed and I worked to tell this story.  But I never thought about giving up on “The Dressmaker” – these young women had worked through difficulties and dangers far greater than those I faced, and it was my job to share their courage and determination with the world.
The Dressmaker gives voice to women like Kamila, who do what they must for the sake of their families every day, around the world, with no one paying attention.   I hope you will read this book and join me in celebrating the unsung heroines all around us. Let's change the conversation about women and war.
Bio: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her first book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, will be published by HarperCollins on March 15 and tells the true story of an Afghan teenager whose business created jobs and hope for 100 women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years. The book is available on Amazon here.

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