I am a fiction reader, and its rare when a non-fiction story grabs me in the same way as a good novel. Well, Gayle Tzemach Lemmons The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is such a book. Lemon was an accomplished journalist, in business school in 2005, who was assigned to write a story on women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan for The Financial Times and a case study for Harvard Business School. This is a story about women entrepreneurs but also about women and war. As Lemmon writes,
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 womens lives and often unexpectedly forces them unprepared in to the role of breadwinner. Charged with their familys survival, they invent ways to provide for their children and communities. But their stories are rarely told. Weve far more accustomed to and comfortable with seeing women portrayed as victims of war who deserve our sympathy rather than as resilient survivors who demand our respect.
The Dressmaker is the story of many women around the world, and is of course the story of Kamila Sidiqi, a young Afghan woman who started a dressmaking business during the reign of the Taliban in order to support her family. The book paints a stark picture of the impact that the Talibans rule had on women: women became invisible in the public sphere, banned from work, their lives closely prescribed and their clothing mandated. After Kamilas father left Kabul as it became clear that it was not safe for him to stay there, she decided to make and sell dresses, even though neither she nor her sisters could sew. They found a teacher, worked hard, and built a business that offered work to 100 women. She traveled around Kabul with her brother in tow (as her guardian) and took risks to build this business and keep this community of women working. I was struck by how Kamila was able to work within the wrenching confines of the Talibans rules restricting women to a narrow sphere of society. I was also struck, however, by the nuances of who comprised the Taliban.
This compelling story paints a picture of what women will do to keep their families and lives intact during war, and the impact of war on the daily lives of so many across the globe.