Book 8; Continent: Asia

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

  • Bring this quick, engaging read along next time you travel
  • 256 pages (234 pages counting the worthwhile epilogue, but not the acknowledgments, etc.)

I have a problem as a reader of world history. Military details—like which rifle is which—don’t interest me, and neither do authors’ political agendas. Given these tastes, a trip to Barnes & Noble’s history shelves for a good book about the Middle East seldom meets with much success. While author Gayle Lemmon does have an agenda, I find it forgivable because she’s so upfront about it: she wants to see women in beleagured countries like Afghanistan empowered with economic opportunities.

This story opens in 1995 Kabul, Afghanistan. At that time, Afghani women enjoyed some latitude in fashion, wearing modest Western-style skirts and pants suits with their heads covered in public. With the Taliban closing in on Kabul, however, choosing one’s largest head scarf and most modest, baggy clothes becomes the safer wardrobe selections. Once the Taliban arrive, not even one’s biggest head scarf will protect one from a beating: a woman must wear a chiadri (elsewhere known as a burqa) if she ventures out at all.

Kamila Sidiqi, the title character, is the second eldest of a family of five sisters and two brothers. When the Taliban rolls into Kabul, she is in her late teens and planning a teaching career. Then the Taliban forbids women from teaching or any other work done outside the home. Up to this point, many women in Kabul work in a range of select, appropriate careers, but now even female doctors are barred from most hospital wards. For weeks, Kamila and her sisters sit at home, essentially under house arrest like all the other bored and anxious women in the city.

Pulling women out of the workforce further damages the war-torn economy. Prices in the market reflect the scant supplies. While Kamila’s own family manages on her father’s military pension and a rental income, their neighbors struggle without the second income from the wife’s job. However, there is one allowance made by the Taliban: women are permitted to work from home. All over Kabul, then, women begin to find ways to earn a living without going into the streets. They grow vegetables, make carpets and embroider. Many of them, like Kamila, become dressmakers.

Kamila knows nothing about sewing when she makes up her mind to become a dressmaker. However, she does see a market for dressmaking services. After all, Kabul’s women suddenly need to dress much more modestly than they have in years, and their wardrobes haven’t kept up. Crucially, shopkeepers can no longer rely on inventory from neighboring Pakistan, so local suppliers are more reliable and less expensive. With some sewing lessons from her older sister under her belt, she heads to the local market escorted by her mahram—her thirteen-year-old brother, the male family member legally obliged to keep her out of trouble while she’s in public. She’s not technically allowed to speak to shopkeepers, and they know it, but they need to find their local suppliers and are willing to risk a couple of sentences as long as no patrols are paying too much attention. She lands some verbal agreements at a couple of shops pretty quickly.

Kamila’s sisters eagerly involve themselves, and soon most of their home is converted into a workshop. The younger sisters suggest setting up an assembly line for cutting patterns and beading, etc. They also kit materials for neighbors to take home for their work in the evenings. The thirteen-year-old brother brings home supplies and delivers finished goods, as he is the only family member who can still come and go as he pleases.

Of course Kamila’s experience illustrates the author’s broader theme of resourceful women holding societies together during wartime. Unfortunately, Lemmon paints her exceptional real-life heroine as a bit too infallible for the sake of her theme. Granted, Kamila survived for years under circumstances where bad judgment got women killed, but no one starts a business without some bad calls. Remember, she was a teenager when she started her business! We don’t hear about Kamila’s mistakes. As inspiring as this remarkable Afghani woman plainly is, I find it difficult to relate to someone who never messes up in a serious way. Besides, resourcefulness doesn’t mean above error. Sometimes, it means figuring out how to pick up the pieces from the errors, and I think there must have been some storytelling opportunities missed in that regard. Lemmon wants so badly to give her readers a woman who isn’t a victim that she overshoots and turns Kamila into not just a resourceful leader, but a bit of a superhero.

This story nonetheless deserves the Western reader’s attention. The daily lives of Lemmon’s characters add personal significance to the Taliban-related news video we remember in the West, and I gleaned the most value from the book here. For example, one of Kamila’s brothers fled to Pakistan to avoid the Taliban press gangs. Her father and mother fled north because her retired father’s military past began to draw attention: he had been relatively high up under Massoud (the leader under attack by the Taliban) at one point. Here in the U.S., we did hear many alarming news pieces about burqas and restrictions placed on women on the evening news. As man of the house in the older males’ absence, the thirteen-year-old brother could have been beaten right along with his sisters for any perceived infraction of Taliban rules concerning women.

I’m discovering what complicated places we have lumped together as “the Middle East”. To that point, reading one book about the region just doesn’t cover it. Please also consider Mark Lijek’s The Houseguests (my favorite narrative), and Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet (the most useful to me).

Image by Nitin Madhav (USAID), 2003. Posted on

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