Read the Introduction below or download an excerpt, including Chapter 1: The News Arrives and Everything Changes
I touched down in Afghanistan for the first time on a raw winter morning in 2005
after two days of travel that took me from Boston to Dubai via London. My eyes stung and my head whirled. Too anxious to sleep, I had stayed up all night in Dubai’s Terminal II waiting for the Ariana flight to Kabul, scheduled to depart at 6:30 a.m. The Afghan airline urged travelers to arrive three hours early, which made finding a hotel feel somewhat beside the point. The predawn destinations on the big black travel board read like a guide to the world’s exotic hot spots: Karachi, Baghdad, Kandahar, Luanda. I realized I was the only woman in the airport, and, perched on a corner window ledge in the sparsely furnished Terminal II lobby waiting for my cell phone to charge, I tried hard to make myself invisible. But I could feel the puzzled stares of the men dressed in their loose-fitting shalwar kameez as they passed me by, pushing their rented silver luggage trolleys stacked high with bulging suitcases that were bound together with heavy brown cord. I imagined them wondering what in the world is that young woman doing here all alone at three o’clock in the morning?
To be honest, I wondered, too. I snuck into the empty but freshly cleaned ladies’ room to change from my Boston outfit of gray turtleneck, Kasil jeans, and English brown leather boots, into an oversize pair of black pants, black long-sleeved T-shirt, black Aerosoles, and black socks. My only color concession was a loose-fitting rust-colored sweater I had purchased at a New Age crystal shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My friend Aliya had lent me a black wool headscarf, and I struggled to casually toss it over my head and shoulders, as she had taught me when we were sitting together on a plush couch thousands of miles—and worlds—away in her dorm room at Harvard Business School. Now, twenty-five hours later, standing alone in a sterile restroom in Dubai, I draped and redraped my shawl a dozen times until I got it passably right. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. “Oh, it’s fine,” I said out loud to my worried-looking reflection. “The trip will be great.” Faking confidence, I turned on my rubber wedge heel and walked out of the ladies’ room.
Eight hours later I descended the metal staircase onto the makeshift tarmac at Kabul International Airport. The sun shone brightly and the scent of charred winter air— crisp, but laced with fumes—went straight to my nose. I bumbled along, trying to keep Aliya’s wool scarf in place as I dragged my orange carry-on behind me. I had to stop every few feet to adjust my veil. No one had prepared me for how hard it was to stay covered while in motion, let alone when lugging heavy baggage. How did the women all around me manage it so gracefully? I wanted to be like them, but instead I looked ridiculous, a goofy foreign duckling fumbling among the local swans.
I waited for an hour in the 1960s-style airport, mesmerized by the carcasses of Russian tanks that still sat along the side of the runway, decades after the Soviets had left Afghanistan. I managed to get through the passport line quickly and without incident. So far, so good, I thought. But then, having gotten through customs, everyone around me quickly began to disperse in different directions, displaying a sense of purpose that I distinctly lacked. I felt a sharp stab of anxiety shoot through my stomach as I realized that I had no idea what to do or where to go. Journalists who travel to faraway and dangerous places usually work with “fixers,” local men and women who arrange their travel, interviews, and lodgings. Mine, a young man named Mohamad, was nowhere to be found. I fumbled through my wallet for his phone number, helpless and frightened but trying to look cool and collected. Where could he be? I wondered. Had he forgotten the American, the former ABC News producer, he had promised by email to pick up at the airport?
At last I found his mobile number on a piece of crumpled paper at the bottom of my purse. But I had no way to call him; I had dutifully charged my UK cell phone, but my London SIM card didn’t work here in Kabul. So much for preparation.
Ten minutes went by, then twenty. Still no Mohamad. I imagined myself, five days later, still stuck at the Kabul Airport. As Afghan families cheerfully hurried out the glass doors, I felt more lonely than I had at 3 a.m. in Dubai’s Terminal II . Only the unsmiling British soldiers milling around massive NATO tanks in front of the airport brought me any comfort. Worst-case scenario, I thought: I could go to the Brits and ask them to take me in. Never before had I found the sight of a tank at an airport reassuring.
Finally, I spotted a twentysomething bearded man selling phone cards, candies, and juices at a little corner stand by the airport’s front door. I broke out a five-dollar bill and a big smile and asked in English if I could use his phone. He smiled and handed it over.
“Mohamad,” I cried, shouting loudly to be certain he could hear me. “Hello, hello, this is Gayle, the American journalist. I am at the airport. Where are you?”
“Hello, Gayle,” he said, calmly. “I’m in the parking lot; I’ve been here the past two hours. We can’t come any closer because of security. Just follow the crowds; I’ll be waiting for you.”
Of course, security restrictions. How could I not have thought of that?
I pushed my own overstuffed silver luggage cart the length of two football fields to a parking lot miles away from the NATO tanks and their British soldiers. There, as promised, was Mohamad, smiling warmly.
“Welcome to Kabul,” he said, grabbing my green Eddie Bauer duffel crammed full of headlamps, long johns, and wool blankets I had bought just for this trip. I wondered how many naïve foreigners Mohamad had greeted at the airport like this. He had worked with journalists for years and was a journalist in his own right. A friend at CBS News in London had insisted I hire him because she knew he was professional, experienced, and trustworthy—exactly what I would need in Kabul in the winter of 2005, a time when occasional rocket attacks and bombings had begun escalating into a full-blown insurgency. At that moment I felt most grateful for her insistence.
The streets of the Afghan capital were a cacophonous free-for-all, with crutch-bearing amputees, taped-together cars, donkeys, fuel-towing bicycles, and United Nations SUVs all fighting for the right-of-way with no traffic lights to guide them and only a smattering of police governing their progress. The crunchy grime of the brown Kabul air clung to everything—lungs, sweaters, headscarves, and windows. It was a noxious souvenir of decades of war in which everything, from the trees to the sewage system, had been destroyed.
I had never seen such an urban Wild West. Drivers would nudge the front end of their vehicles to within two inches of our blue Toyota Corolla, then suddenly careen back into their own lane. Afghan music blared from the Toyotas, Hondas, and Mercedes that were stuck with us in the gridlock. The city was clamorous in honking horns. White-haired old men with woolen blankets draped loosely across their shoulders stepped in front of cars, halting traffic and paying no attention to the oncoming vehicles. Clearly they—and everyone else—were used to this mad jumble of barely managed chaos that was Kabul.
I was not. I was a first-timer.
I was on winter break during my second year of MBA study at Harvard Business School. Journalism had always been my first love, but a year earlier I had given up my job covering presidential campaigns for the ABC News Political Unit, where I had spent much of my adult life. At thirty, I took the leap and decided to pursue my passion for international development, certain that if I didn’t leave then, I never would. So I shed the warm cocoon of my Washington, D.C., world for graduate school. The first thing I did was start hunting for a subject rich with stories that no one else was covering. Stories that mattered to the world.
The issue that called me was women who work in war zones: a particularly intrepid and inspiring form of entrepreneurship that happens regularly right in the heart of the world’s most dangerous conflicts—and their aftermath.
I began my research in Rwanda. I went there to see firsthand how women play a part in rebuilding their country by creating business opportunities for themselves and others. Women accounted for three-quarters of Rwanda’s citizens immediately after the 1994 genocide; a decade later, they remained the majority. International officials— all men—in the capital city of Kigali told me there was no story: that women did not own small businesses in Rwanda, that they worked only in the far less lucrative microfinance sector selling fruit and handicrafts at little stands on the side of the road. My reporting showed me they were wrong: I found women who owned gas stations and ran hotels. And the fruit sellers I interviewed were exporting their avocados and bananas to Europe twice a week. Shortly afterward I published a profile in the Financial Times of some of the most successful entrepreneurs I’d met—including a businesswoman selling baskets to Macy’s, the famous New York department store chain.
Now, just a few months later, I was in Kabul, again for the Financial Times, to report on a surprising phenomenon: a new generation of Afghan businesswomen who had emerged in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover. I had also promised to find a protagonist for a case study that Harvard Business School would teach the following year. My former network news colleagues had tried to help me prepare for Kabul and paved the way by sharing their contacts, but as soon as I arrived I realized just how little I actually knew about the country.
All I had was the passionate desire to pursue a story.
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. But their stories are rarely told. We’re 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. I was determined to change this.
So I came to Kabul in search of that story. The plight of Afghan women had won worldwide attention in the wake of the Taliban’s ouster by American and Afghan forces, which followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I was eager to see what kinds of companies women were starting in a country that had barred them from schools and offices just four years earlier. I brought with me from Boston four pages, single spaced and neatly stapled, containing the names and email addresses of possible sources, the product of weeks of conversations with TV reporters, print journalists, Harvard contacts, and aid workers in the region.
I discussed interview ideas with Mohamad. Over cups of tea in the empty dining room of a hotel frequented by journalists, I asked him whether he knew any women who were running their own businesses. He laughed. “You know that men in Afghanistan don’t get involved in women’s work.” But after a moment of thought he looked up at me and admitted that yes, he had heard there were a few women in Kabul who had started their own companies. I hoped he was right.
As the days passed, I worked my way down the roster of potential interviewees but kept coming up empty. Many of the women whose names I had been given were running nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that were not businesses at all. In fact, I was told, when the international community first entered Afghanistan en masse in 2002, it was easier to register an NGO than a company. The incentives were fixed early on. American officials in Washington and Kabul may have been championing Afghan businesswomen, holding public events and spending millions of government dollars on their behalf, but here I was struggling to find a single entrepreneur with a viable business plan. Surely they were out there and I just hadn’t looked in the right places?
My deadline was approaching, and I was beginning to fear that I’d return home empty-handed and let down both the Financial Times and my professor at Harvard. And then finally a woman who worked with the New York nonprofit organization Bpeace told me about Kamila Sidiqi, a young dressmaker turned serial entrepreneur. Not only did she run her own firm, I was told, but she had gotten her unlikely start in business as a teenager during the Taliban era.
At last I felt a jolt of reporter’s excitement, the thrilling rush of news adrenaline that journalists live for. The idea of a burqa-clad breadwinner starting a business under the nose of the Taliban was remarkable for sure. Like most foreigners, I had imagined Afghan women during the Taliban years as silent—and passive—prisoners waiting out their prolonged house arrest. I was fascinated, and eager to learn more.
The more I dug around, the more I realized that Kamila was only one of many young women who had worked throughout years of the Taliban regime. Driven by the need to earn money for their families and loved ones when Kabul’s economy collapsed under the weight of war and mismanagement, they turned small openings into large opportunities and invented ways around the rules. As women throughout the world always had, they found a way forward for the sake of their families. They learned how to work the system and even how to thrive within it.
Some staffed foreign NGOs, often in the area of women’s health, which organizations the Taliban permitted to continue. Doctors could still work. And so could women who helped other women to learn basic hygiene and sanitation practices. Some taught in underground schools, leading courses for girls and women in everything from Microsoft Windows to math and Dari, as well as the Holy Q’uran. These study sessions took place across Kabul in private homes or, even better, in women’s hospitals, the one safe zone the Taliban permitted. But the women could never fully let their guard down; classes would pack up at a moment’s notice after someone came running down a hallway to warn that the Taliban were coming. Still others, like Kamila, launched home businesses and risked their safety to find buyers for the goods they produced. Though their vocations differed, these women shared one thing in common: their work meant the difference between survival and starvation for their families. And they did it on their own.
No one had fully told these heroines’ stories. There were moving diaries that captured the brutality and despair of women’s lives under the Taliban, and inspiring books about women who created new opportunities after the Taliban had been forced into retreat. But this story was different: it was about Afghan women who supported one another when the world outside had forgotten them. They helped themselves and their communities with no help from beyond their poor and broken country, and they reshaped their own future in the process.
Kamila is one of these young women, and if you judge by the enduring impact her work has had on modern-day Afghanistan, it’s fair to say that she’s among the most visionary. Her story tells us much about the country to which we continue to send our troops nearly a decade after the Taliban’s foot soldiers stopped patrolling the streets outside her front door. And it offers a guide as we watch to see whether the past decade of modest progress will turn out to have been a new beginning for Afghan women or an aberration that disappears when the foreigners do.
Deciding to write about Kamila was easy. Actually doing so was not. Security went to pieces during the years I spent interviewing Kamila’s family, friends, and colleagues. Suicide bombings and rocket attacks terrorized the city with increasing frequency—and potency. Eventually these grew sophisticated and coordinated enough to pin Kabulis down in their homes and offices for hours at a time. Even the usually stoic Mohamad occasionally showed his nervousness, bringing me his wife’s black Iranian-style headscarf to help me look more “local.” After each incident I would call my husband to say that everything was okay, and urge him not to pay too much attention to all the bad news in his “Afghanistan” Google Alert. Meanwhile, all across Kabul cement walls rose higher and the barbed wire surrounding them grew thicker. I and everyone else in Kabul learned to live with heavily armed guards and multiple security searches each time we entered a building. Thugs and insurgents began kidnapping foreign journalists and aid workers from their homes and cars, sometimes for cash and sometimes for politics. Journalist friends and I spent hours trading rumors we had heard of attacks and potential attacks, and texting one another when security alerts warned of neighborhoods we should avoid that day. One afternoon following an intense day of interviews I received a worried call from the U.S. Embassy asking if I was the American writer who had been abducted the day before. I assured them I was not.
This worsening reality complicated my work. Afghan girls who worked with Kamila during the Taliban era grew more nervous about meeting with me for fear that their families or bosses would shun the attention a foreigner’s visit attracted. Others frightened of being overheard by their colleagues refused entirely. “Don’t you know the Taliban are coming back?” one young woman asked me in a nervous whisper. She worked for the United Nations at the time, but had just been telling me all about the NGO she worked for during the Taliban. “They hear everything,” she said, “and if my husband finds out I talked to you, he will divorce me.”
I didn’t know how to answer such questions but did everything I could to protect my interview subjects and myself: I dressed even more conservatively than the Afghan women around me; wore my own headscarves, which I had bought at an Islamic clothing store in Anaheim, California; and learned to speak Dari. When I arrived at stores and offices for interviews, I stayed silent for as long as possible and let Mohamad speak to the security guards and receptionists on my behalf. I knew that the better I blended in, the safer we all would be.
One of my reporting trips coincided with an audacious early morning attack on a UN guesthouse that killed five UN workers. For many nights afterward I would jump out of bed and leap into my slippers whenever I heard the neighbor’s cat walking across the plastic sheeting that insulated our roof—I thought the noise was someone trying to break in. A friend suggested, only half jokingly, that I keep an AK -47 in my room to defend our house against would-be attackers. I agreed immediately, but my roommates worried that, given my limited firearms experience, this would create more danger than it prevented.
Kamila and her sisters also feared for my safety.
“Aren’t you worried? What does your family say?” Kamila’s older sister Malika asked. “It is very dangerous here for foreigners right now.”
I reminded them all that they had lived through much worse and had never stopped working. Why should I? They tried to protest, but they knew I was right: they had kept going during the Taliban years despite the risks, not just because they had to but because they believed in what they were doing. So did I.
The fact that I stayed in Kabul then—and kept coming back year after year—earned me their respect and strengthened our friendship. And the more I learned about Kamila’s family—their commitment to service and education, their desire to make a difference for their country— the more my esteem for them grew. I strove to be worthy of their example.
Over time Kamila’s family became part of mine. One of her sisters would help me with my Dari while another made delicious traditional Afghan dinners of rice, cauliflower, and potatoes for her vegetarian guest from America. When I left in the evenings, they always insisted on checking to make sure my car was outside before letting me put my shoes on to leave. We spent afternoons sitting in our stocking feet in the living room drinking tea and snacking on toot, dried berries from the north. When we weren’t working we swapped stories about husbands and politics and the “situation,” as everyone in Kabul euphemistically referred to security. We sang and danced with Kamila’s beautiful toddler nieces. And we worried about one another.
What I found in Kabul was a sisterhood unlike any I had seen before, marked by empathy, laughter, courage, curiosity about the world, and above all a passion for work. I saw it the first day I met Kamila: here was a young woman who believed with all her heart that by starting her own business and helping other women to do the same, she could help save her long-troubled country. The journalist in me needed to know: where does such a passion, such a calling, come from? And what does Kamila’s story tell us about Afghanistan’s future and America’s involvement in it?
That is the story I set out to tell. And those are the questions I set out to answer.
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