Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon arrived in Afghanistan in 2005. She had come to Kabul on an assignment to write an article for the Financial Times about local women entrepreneurs who emerged when the Taliban took control of the city in 1996.
Lemmon was not a novice at covering women in war zones. She had worked in Bosnia and Rwanda reporting on female entrepreneurs in post-conflict counties.
But in Afghanistan, Lemmon was “a first-timer.” When she met her interview subject, she realized the story of this particular Afghan woman deserved more than 1,500 words of a newspaper article. The article became a book based on the true story of Kamila Sidiqi — “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.”
Sidiqi was only 19 when the Taliban began to impose their brutal regime in Kabul, banning women from schools, prohibiting them to work outside the home or to leave the house without a full cover, the chadri, and a male relative, the mahram. Sidiqi’s father and brother fled Kabul in fear of being targeted by the Taliban. Sidiqi was left alone to care for her siblings with no means to provide for them.
Despite the circumstances, Sidiqi became a successful entrepreneur and role model.
“She was successful because she refused to give up. She was determined to make a difference, to improve conditions for her family and her community. And she, just like other women like her, did impossible things at an impossible time,” said Lemmon.
Sidiqi’s older sister taught her to sew. Her brother accompanied her on trips to the local clothing shops, where she offered her products to the shop owners. Her younger sisters joined the workshop and helped her fulfill the growing orders. Her operation expanded, bringing in other girls and women from the neighborhood who were desperate for work.
Collectively, they developed training classes, quality control and a strict schedule in order to avoid drawing the Taliban’s attention to their large gatherings inside the house. The activity, however, was not entirely unnoticed. Family members of the Taliban came to Sidiqi asking for jobs. Once, a woman rushed into her workshop to place an urgent order. When the woman came back for a pick-up, they realized that the clothing they hurried to complete was for a Taliban wedding.
Although it has been nearly a decade since American-led forces upended the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the status and future of Afghan women remain a concern, said Lemmon. In areas not controlled by the Taliban, women have been filling the space that the international community has created for them with new economic opportunities and new standing in their communities, she said. But in Taliban-controlled areas, the dangers and threats continue.
“We watch to see whether the past decade of modest progress will turn out to have been a new beginning for Afghan women or an aberration that disappears when the foreigners go,” she added.
Lemmon said she learned from resilience and perseverance of the people she met. “They managed to go on facing unimaginable obstacles, with their tenacity and determination. They showed me how to live when mortality is something that you feel so close to you. We, in the United States, are so used to be planning weeks, months ahead. In Afghanistan you simply cannot do that. You think each day what you can do to make tomorrow better than today, you ask how to serve your community.”
As for Sidiqi, she is now running her own consultancy firm, Kaweyan, aimed at helping women start their own enterprises.
“We hear a lot of stories about destruction, bombings, casualties, heroic soldiers. We are used to seeing women as victims of war rather than survivors, but there are stories of women who live through the war and find ways to feed their families, to help communities, they work hard to make life better for their children and their families, with no one there helping them,” Lemmon said.