The Browser, Writing Worth Reading: Gayle Lemmon on Women and War

October 3, 2011
FiveBooks Interviews:  Gayle Lemmon on Women and War:
When war comes, women pick up the pieces, providing for families and taking up jobs previously done by men. Increasingly, women are to be found on the frontlines of combat too, as the author and journalist explains

Your bestselling book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana revolves around a burqa-clad entrepreneur who started her business under Taliban rule. You’ve suggested that this story could have easily occurred in World War I. What is timeless about the story and about women’s struggles during war in general?

When we think about war stories we always think about men. Yet it’s women who make sure that their families get through conflict, it’s women who make sure that their families can eat, and it’s women who make sure that there’s a place to go back to when the fighting is over. And increasingly, it’s women who are under fire. Yet we never think about war stories as belonging to women. We see women’s stories as being soft, but the work that women do during war is very hard.

I wrote The Dressmaker of Khair Khana because in 2005 I met a young woman in Afghanistan who told me about her business, and how earning an income earned respect in traditional countries. I asked, “I’m barely 30 and I’m pretty sure you’re younger. How do you know this much about business?” She said, as though it was natural, “I had this great business under the Taliban, who supported women in my neighborhood.” In many ways it was the Taliban who made her an entrepreneur, because she had family counting on her to support them. It’s a timeless story, because women have always found ways to get their families through war and almost never get the credit for it. That’s what I saw in the story of my book.


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October 2011