March 12, 2011

Many books have been written about the harsh conditions women in Afghanistan had to suffer during the Taliban rule. We’ve read about them being arrested for leaving the house without a male relative, getting stoned for not wearing a burqa and getting beaten to death for exposing an arm in public.

Few, if any books, however, have told the tale of women surviving by becoming successful entrepreneurs. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, written by former ABC producer Gayle Lemmon, does just that by documenting the true story of Kamila Sidiqi, who built a successful business at a time when women were strictly prohibited from working.

With two potential breadwinners — a father and a brother — forced to flee their hometown, Kamila had to quickly find a way to provide for her siblings. She decided she would work discreetly as a seamstress. For this plan to work, there were, of course, problems to overcome.

Several times, Kamila risked running into members of the ruthless Taliban religious police. Without any sewing skills to begin with, she first had to travel — unescorted — to another part of town for sewing lessons. Later, she had to make several trips to the local bazaar to secretly inquire from shop owners about selling her dresses.

The business plan initially involved only the Sidiqi sisters working from their home in Khair Khana. As orders for dresses started to increase, so did demand for additional pairs of hands. Soon, word got out about the business, and women from all over town came knocking on their door.

What started out as Kamila’s idea to feed her own family turned into a source of income — and I must add, a source of hope — for other women in her community.

An interesting twist to this story was finding out that admirers of Kamila’s dresses included the Taliban themselves. The Sidiqi sisters had no idea when they received an almost impossible job order of six dresses, due in one day, that they were making dresses for a Taliban wedding. If Kamila was being discreet about her dressmaking venture, so were the Taliban about patronizing her work.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana shows us a side of Afghanistan that is so different from what we have seen so far. It is a welcome change to read about entrepreneurship, sales and marketing in the same pages that illustrate a repressive Taliban regime.

I recommend this book to anyone who has ever had an idea or a business plan. Kamila’s story is engrossing, and her courage truly inspiring.

-Marilen Cawad (March 12, 2011)