The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

When the Taliban took control of Kabul, Kamila Sidiqi and all the women in the Afghan capital saw their lives shrink and become veiled in darkness. Overnight, they were banned from schools and offices and even forbidden from leaving their front doors on their own. The economy collapsed and young men left the city in search of work and security. Desperate to help her family and support her five brothers and sisters at home, Kamila began sewing clothes in her living room.

Little did she know that the tailoring business she started to help her siblings would be the beginning of a dressmaking business that would create jobs and hope for 100 neighbourhood women and would come to mean the difference between starvation and survival for hundreds of families.

Other people’s journeys fascinate me more than mine, and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a story of a journey of transformation despite the fact that Kamila and her sisters were trapped in their own homes for most of the Taliban’s ruthless reign in Afghanistan which ended in November 2001. Just walking down the street was hazardous without a male relative as an escort.

Author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s inspiring true story grew from a trip to Afghanistan in 2005 when she was assigned to write a story for The Financial Times on Afghan women entrepreneurs. These women were extraordinarily brave in the face of utter repression on all levels in society. Until the evil of the Taliban gripped Afghanistan, they had been mostly free to walk the streets of Kabul, get an education and work. The story unfolds at the beginning of the regime, and shows how Afghans suffered, and how they adapted to the changes in their lives in positive ways we in the West could not imagine.

Kamila couldn’t even sew, and relied on her beloved older sister Malika to teach her. At all stages of setting up her tailoring business, making dresses for Afghan women, she was under constant threat of discovery and punishment by the Taliban.

“Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no-one bearing witness,” the author writes. “This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one 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.”

When I was doing volunteer refugee advocate work I met Afghan asylum-seekers who had been through hell. Some were accepted as refugees and built new and wonderful lives in Australia, others were forcibly returned to Afghanistan and suffered again. I read this book almost in one very late-night sitting, and it brought back memories of the women I had met years earlier, and reminded me of their special characteristics of tenacity and creativity and loyalty to family. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Hachette Australia, published by John Murray. $A32.99

For more info on Afghan women transforming lives:

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