The Grade: A-
Makes Me Want to Read: more about Afghanistan and women’s rights there
My Thoughts: I’m drawn to books about Afghanistan and as a feminist and former women’s studies student, a book about sisters secretly running their own business to survive Taliban-era Kabul is written for me.
After the Taliban take Kabul in 1996, Kamila Sidiqi’s parents are forced to flee to the north. Her father was in the military under previous regimes and the family fears for his life if he remains in Kabul. However, travel is extremely dangerous and it is thought to be safer for the children to remain in Kabul. At this point Kamila is maybe 20 years old and is now responsible for her four younger sisters and her younger brother. She asks her older sister to teach her how to sew so that she and her younger sisters can begin a dressmaking business. Under Taliban edicts, women are essentially prisoners in their own homes. The girls are desperate for work and Kamila correctly believes that the dressmaking business will give them a purpose, and provide much needed income for the family.
Thus begins a small, family-owned business that soon grows to include more than 30 women as well as school to train women to be seamstresses. The Sidiqi home becomes a haven for the young women of the Khair Khana neighborhood of Kabul. Comments one young woman after her first day, “It’s not even like being in Kabul City…It feels like a place where there’s no Taliban at all, and no fighting. There are just all these women working together and talking and sharing stories. It’s wonderful.”
Kamila not only creates a thriving business, she creates a community, each desperately needed in late 1990’s Kabul. The horrors of life under the Taliban are addressed, but The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is not as graphic as A Thousand Splendid Suns. Suns is a wonderful book–a friend of mine from Afghanistan recommended it, telling me it was a very good depiction of life under the Taliban, and I’ve no doubt this is true. But because it describes such horrific events in great detail, I would hesitate in giving it to my younger cousins. In both books, I found myself murmuring to the characters, “Just hold on. Three more years. Two more years. Just get to September 2001. Help is coming.”
Help is coming, but Kamila also helps herself. She takes risks, she provides for her family and her community, she teaches the next generation and she never gives up. In short, she is inspiring and I’m so glad Lemmon has told her story. Kamila is a wonderful example to all of us of the power of an individual, the importance of hard work and optimism–I would give her story to my younger cousins in an instant.
On her last reporting trip to Afghanistan in 2009, Lemmon met with one of Kamila’s brothers, who thanked her profusely for telling his sister’s story:
I realized that Kamila’s brother understood better than I did why, at this moment, telling his sister’s story matters so much. Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share on small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed. I wanted to pull the curtain back for readers on a place foreigners know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage. And to introduce them to the young women like Kamila Sidiqi who will go on. No matter what (229).
I’ve already been affected by Kamila in a small way: with my mother’s assistance, I’ve been making wedding gifts for friends who are getting married at the end of the month, and a blanket for a friend expecting her first child, a daughter, in September.