When Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, first met Kamila Sidiqi, it was to interview her as the basis of a case study in female entrepreneurship for Harvard Business School. Kamila had overcome enormous odds to begin a home-based seamstress business in her neighborhood of Khair Khana in Kabul, Afghanistan, a business that grew to encompass dozens of female workers (and some males, like one of Kamila's brothers who proved to be particularly adept at embroidery) and that became not only a steady wage-provider for all its workers but also a teaching cooperative and a sanctuary. It is this aspect of Kamela's story -- how she provided a sanctuary of productivity, creativity, and hope amidst the oppressive practices of the ruling Taliban regime -- that transformed the business school case study into an inspirational exemplar of how one person can make a huge difference, no matter the odds against her.
In 1996, Kamila was a newly trained teacher, ready to make her mark on the world. But then the Taliban rolled into Kabul, laying down an oppressive and regressive regime that condemned women to virtual imprisonment in their homes, while forcing many of the men to flee (including Kamila's father and later her older brothers) for fear of imprisonment or being forced to fight for the Taliban military. Stuck at home with little to do (other than reading and rereading volumes of poetry and novels) and becoming increasingly impoverished, Kamila searched about for some way to alleviate the combined stresses of boredom, fear, and poverty.
Dressmaking was the solution (even though Kamila herself had no training or skill in handiwork), and, through sheer determination and bravery, Kamila made her business grow. She was driven not only by the need to provide for herself and for her family but by her desire to restore to the women of Kabul their belief in themselves as self-determining and self-sufficient. Before the Taliban entered their lives, many of these women had been trained as doctors or teachers, and they had been important contributors to their families, both economically and socially. Kamila gave these women the chance to once again support their families and form new networks of support and community. After the Taliban were driven out by American attacks following 9/11, those networks of support and community held, laying the groundwork for new businesses and allowing new opportunities to flourish not only for the women of Kabul but also for the city's returning men.
What is so beautiful about Lemmon's telling of Kamila's story is that she allows the facts to speak for themselves. There is no hyperbole or grand drama: the situation was dramatic enough, the role the women played magnificent enough, and the realization of a dream that went far beyond its modest goals of sustenance invigorating enough, that to read the story in its simple and accessible narrative is inspiring enough -- and many times more.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a book to be shared across genders and generations, a truly uplifting and very true story of how one woman set out to start a business and ended up preserving the dignity of so many women; opened up possibilities for hundreds more; and inspired thousands.
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