Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana explains why nothing changes the dynamic in a family like a woman earning an income.

After almost 10 years as a journalist, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon left her ABC News post to earn an MBA. During her case study research at Harvard, she met and began writing about women entrepreneurs in war zones, including Afghanistan and Rwanda. She's since become deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program and a policy expert on Afghanistan. Lemmon's book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, credits the women she met as real entrepreneurs who got their families through hard economic times, political turmoil and war.


Tavis: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program. She’s also the author of the critically acclaimed new text, “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe”. Gayle, good to have you on the program.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Delighted to be here.
Tavis: I wrote this down and I want to get this right. There’s a quote in the book, a quote that you made, that I wanted to start with because I think it really contextualizes what our conversation is gonna be about relative to the text. The quote is – these are your words.
“Money is power for women…If women have their own income to bring to the family, they can contribute and make decisions. Their brothers, their husbands, and their entire families will have respect for them.” Those are your words. How is money power different for women than money is power for men? Does that make sense?
Lemmon: Absolutely. Well, I think it’s also where you are in the world too, I think, especially in traditional societies. That’s actually me quoting Kamila Sediqi, the protagonist to the book. Her point of view was that earning an income earns respect in the family, and you really do see that.
I have been reporting on women entrepreneurs for the past five years in places like Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia. Nothing changes the dynamic in the family like women earning an income because it makes the fathers and the brothers and the sons respect them and give them decision-making power and it lets them get boys and girls in school. I think it’s the girls’ education piece that’s really critical.
Tavis: Who knew that there were even women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan?
Lemmon: Very few people, in fact. On my first trip to Afghanistan, we had this joke the dullest Customs guy said to me, “Well, you’re going for two weeks. So what are you gonna do? Because it’s only gonna take you half a day to do those interviews, isn’t it?” But what you see on the ground is that people continuously underestimate these women.
And there are – as a journalist, as you know, you go on the ground and you see these stories and you see the power of these women to not just change their own lives, but to change their family’s dynamic and to bring income into poor countries. Families really notice that difference immediately and it just changes peoples’ lives.
Tavis: Tell me more about Kamila’s story.
Lemmon: She was a young woman who was supposed to be a teacher, supposed to be actually a Dari professor. It’s the equivalent of being an English professor. The Taliban come to Afghanistan and she ends up being at home, head of the household with five brothers and sisters to support because her father had to leave the city because of security.
So she ends up being the only young woman, sort of, to helm the household and figures out that she has to find a way to start a business because she has to do something to support her family. You know, I think what people don’t know about the Taliban years in Afghanistan is that it was an economic story as much as it was political. People had nothing. You know, jobs went away almost overnight. People were selling doors and windows and baby dolls and shoelaces, anything, anything to earn money.
So these girls realized that they could not do any of the things they were trained to do, so they did the one thing they could still do and they became entrepreneurs and they became entrepreneurs in their living rooms. Her business actually ended up creating jobs for about 100 women in her neighborhood at a really impossible time when almost every other outlet for women had vanished overnight.
Tavis: The book tells the remarkable story – it’s based on a true story, of course – it tells a remarkable story of how secretive, how clandestine, they had to be running a business. So how does one, to your point now, run a business that goes on to employ, you know, 100-plus people and do it secretively?
Lemmon: I mean, that was what was so fascinated to me. Because they were always navigating around the rules. They took any opening they had and they exploited it not just for the opportunity for themselves, but for their whole neighborhood. So they sort of followed the rules as much as they could.
They would, you know, always wear the burka. In fact, Kamila had a different name that she used so that no shopkeeper could ever say that he knew her. Then if anybody actually went into their neighborhood, they’d never know who Roya was, right? They would only know a young woman named Kamila.
And they also were very strict about the rules for all the girls who worked with them. There’s a sort of scene early on where this woman, Sara, who’s a widow, comes and actually starts to work with Kamila, so she becomes the rule implementer and they have rules right by the hook at the door where everybody leaves their burka.
They had the rules that said “no laughing on the street, no talking to men on the way to the house, you can only come on certain days because if we have too many girls at one time, we could have a problem, and absolutely no nail polish or white socks or high heels because all of those are against Taliban rules and you can never be seen coming to this house with any of those.”
I think Kamila’s point of view was this business supports our community and our community supports us, and this is a bond we share, so neither one of us can break that.
Tavis: I want to circle back to this quote about money that I started the conversation with, quoting you, quoting Kamila in the book. I want to come back to that because, when I first heard about the book and it arrived a few days ago, I was anxious to get into it because I wanted to – how do I want to put this – given all that they had to risk, as the subtitle suggests, it seemed to me that it had to be about more than just money.
As much power as they find in having money because it brings respect for them, it’s about more than money. I get the sense that it’s also about their own right to self-determination.
Lemmon: That’s right, and it’s about their right to contribute to their community. It’s about their right to determine how their family grows and is shaped. And it’s about the right to getting girls and boys in school. I think, for these women, money was simply the avenue in a country which is incredibly poor to really express themselves and to make a difference within their own families.
And within the family unit, you know, these women have made a real impact because their fathers and their brothers and their husbands can’t dismiss them. In fact, they celebrate them. You know, one thing I get asked a lot is about the men in the book. What about the men in Afghanistan?
I think, you know, throughout the book, it is the men who make all of this possible. Kamila’s father had nine girls and two boys and he made sure that all nine girls got educated, which is sort of an astonishing thing in any country, let alone a really poor country such as Afghanistan. So I think that these women are really shaping their futures of their families as much as they are changing the economic dynamics within their own home.
Tavis: I was in a conversation literally just about this yesterday about men in this country – and certainly in other countries, for that matter – who can almost blindly engage in patriarchy where their wives are concerned or where their female peers are concerned, but they want their daughters – you know where I’m going with this.
What do you make of that, particularly in a place like Afghanistan? Their father is part of a culture where patriarchy, sexism, is the order of the day and yet, you know, the uncle, that is, wants these girls to be educated. What do you make of that dichotomy?
Lemmon: I think there are two things in play. I think one is that men are all individuals the same as women. There are a lot of men who see positive examples of educated women and they want their own families to look like that.
In Kamila’s case, he talked to me. You know, we were sort of on the Panjshir River in a place that should not have gotten cell service and he’s sitting there with his cell phone and texting and telling me about how, when he was a teenager, he worked in a $22 million dollar factory in Afghanistan, a Swiss-German factory, and he worked alongside European women.
He said the only thing that separated the women in my family from the women working with me at this factory was education. So I became determined that any girl I was gonna have was going to be educated. I think it was also for them a question of faith because they really believed that their faith teaches them that everybody has a responsibility to contribute to the community, and you can’t contribute to the community without education.
So they saw it as really an extension of their belief in God, you know, that they had children who would be able to do anything that they could to make sure that other people were cared for and provided for and, without an education, you can’t do any of that.
Tavis: I want to step back from the book – not too far, but just a step back from the book because you’ve been covering these issues of women entrepreneurs around the world for some years now.
How uniquely, if they are different, are the challenges that women in other countries – this is a generic question; I apologize – but how different are the challenges for women around the world versus women in this country to get on that entrepreneur track?
Lemmon: It’s actually a great question because there’s actually less separating them than you might think. The cultural question is the biggest divider in Afghanistan. It’s hard for women to be mobile without men, right? Men drive you, men are your chaperones.
As a reporter, I don’t go anywhere without my male driver and fixer because you just don’t move around by yourself. But that doesn’t mean that men stop you. I mean, in fact, you know, as we were just talking about, that these men are really incredibly supportive of their wives and daughters and sisters.
But I think the challenge that they face of getting acceptance when they’re out trying to do business in a traditional society like Afghanistan remains. And the bigger challenge that they face is access to capital. I mean, trying to get a bank loan, if you’re a woman entrepreneur in a place like Rwanda or in a place like Afghanistan, if really hard because women don’t have land rights a lot of times.
So how do you get a loan if nobody knows how they’re gonna get their money back, right? And people don’t even like to loan to small businesses in this country where you have land rights and you have rule of law and you have bankruptcy courts and all of that. So I think the access to capital and access to markets are really the biggest issues women face.
Tavis: How do we juxtapose the challenges that women still face in Afghanistan and other countries like it where patriarchy is concerned with the notion you’ve just suggested now that these men want the best for their wives and for their daughters? I mean, I’m not a rocket scientist, but if every man in the country wants the best for his wife or his daughter, then how does patriarchy stay so alive and well?
Lemmon: I think it is that people in power like to stay in power. It will take a real sea change among men like Kamila’s father to really push back on some of the cultural stereotypes, right? And also to make sure that their daughters get educated. Because you do see now in Afghanistan young women like Kamila have become real homegrown role models.
Sometimes European or American – I hate to say this – but often male reporters say to me, “You know, you only write about the exceptions.” I said, “Well, that’s journalism, right?” We write about good stories. We write about exceptional stories.
Tavis: You know what? The sun did come out today. If it doesn’t come out for ten days, you write about it, yeah.
Lemmon: Exactly. The Redskins actually won, you know [laugh]. I’m a long-suffering Redskins fan.
Tavis: I see, I see.
Lemmon: But, you know, it’s true that these girls are exceptional, but they are not the only ones and they are as homegrown in terms of role models as they come. Kamila told me this great story where she was in Kandahar, which is quite near the seat of the Taliban.
She was doing training with men and she was training them about gender issues, which she had been paid to do as part of her business consultancy. She was very nervous, but she began by reciting from the Koran and started talking to the men and said, “Look, I’m not here as your teacher. I’m here as your daughter and your sister and your friend, here to share what I know.”
Tavis: Very wise.
Lemmon: And at the end of the two days, this very conservative Mullah from Kandahar came up to her and said, “If I could be sure that my daughter would turn out like you, I would send her to school tomorrow.” I think it’s the power of these women who are changing the way women are seen every day within the community that is going to make the difference.
You cannot do this from outside and I think we see this today in the Middle East. We cannot impose values from outside. It really is an evolution that women are creating for themselves and that’s why I felt so strongly about bringing this story.
No one helps these young women during the Taliban period. These young women created jobs and hope for their entire community at a time when the world had really forgotten them and they did it themselves. So that is why I think their story is so powerful because it proves how much work they do when no one’s looking.
Tavis: As a country, we should have learned by now – obviously, we have not – that you can’t simplistically export democracy. You can’t export freedom. I hear the point you’re making that, you know, it’s got to come from within. I get that.
Yet I still feel like there is a role for our government to play in advancing and opening up the way. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, Secretary of State – I saw the wonderful story you did on her for “Newsweek”. I saw that a couple of weeks ago. She’s made this part of her foreign policy.
I spent a few weeks traveling with her around the world for a special I did for her on PBS last year, so I saw her engage this issue in country after country after country. So she’s been vocal about it, but then again, she happens to be a woman. So what role, what responsibility, do we have, given that we’re in Afghanistan specifically, to press for these roles, these pathways, to be open for women?
Lemmon: It’s so interesting. I was there in July of last summer around the Kabul confront. What was fascinating about that was that women had no right to speak even the night before. It was Secretary Clinton lobbying the Afghan government and the international community that made sure that Afghan women had a right to speak at their own conference last summer.
So what she and her State Department has done in terms of the civil society fostering, really giving groups who fight child marriage, groups who fight for democracy, groups who fight for women advocacy, a voice within the U.S. State Department, and giving them the support and the training and the access to skills that they would not have without State Department funding.
I think it has made an enormous difference on the ground and you see it with the women I’m sure you saw when you were traveling with her congregate toward her immediately. They go up to her and say, Oh, Secretary Clinton, you know, we have this and this and this and we’ve achieved and we need to do, you know, three more things. How can we get your support?
She has this incredible stick-to-itiveness where she does follow up on all these requests that come in to her every day from women around the world.
Tavis: Does this story, Kamila’s story, make you hopeful about women in Afghanistan?
Lemmon: I think I’m most pessimistic about Afghanistan when I’m in the United States and I’m most hopeful about Afghanistan when I’m there, because you meet all these people like Kamila who are fighting for something better for the sake of their families just like people here are every single day. That’s what gives me hope.
There are entrepreneurs and teachers and professors. One girl school principal who’s a character in the book, a woman, she runs four shifts of girls’ high school classes every day in Afghanistan. Her day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. She does it because she thinks a girl’s education is really critical to her country’s future.
So I’m optimistic that people who believe that something better is possible for their country will win, but the odds are so stacked against them. And this conflict has gone on for so long that this country, the United States, is incredibly exhausted with it, even though there is some hope.
Tavis: My time is up and yet I feel compelled to ask this as a quick exit question because I find that so oftentimes in these conversations you have to literally put this question out front so that the viewer understands respectfully why this matters to us. Here’s a story that’s thousands of miles away.
Secretary Clinton, again to her credit, has tried to connect the dots about how important this is to democracy which impacts us. But in your own words, so why is Kamila’s future important to us sitting here in Los Angeles or Chicago or wherever we are tonight?
Lemmon: I think for two reasons. One is that these are our allies. If you want to talk about the goal creating a more stable, more secure, more prosperous, Afghanistan, it is women. It is entrepreneurs like Kamila who are the foundation of a better future for this country.
I think so often we see women as collateral damage rather than contributors. You know, the collateral damage in Afghanistan, the sense that, oh, it won’t be such a shame if their rights are lost again, you know, rather than seeing them as real contributors, which is what they are. They’re contributing to a more secure Afghanistan every single day.
I think the second thing is that people have forgotten about the people in this war. You know, I think the coverage of IEDs and kidnappings and bombings, which are all awful, but they have eclipsed any story, any recognition we have of the real people who are on our side and fighting for a better future for their country.
One woman came up to me the other day and said to me, “This is the first time in years that I’ve thought about the state for people in Afghanistan”, the real people who are doing something every day for the sake of their families, and I hope that this book helps people connect once more with, you know, those people who are fighting bravely every day.
Tavis: Her name is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. The book is called “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe”. Good to have you on the program, Gayle. Congrats on the book.
Lemmon: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm