In 1996, when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, they forced women into the home. Girls couldn’t attend school and women couldn’t teach it – nor practice medicine, work in an office, or serve in government. If they were seen at all it was in daylight, accompanied by a male relative, and covered head to floor in a chadri. Only their eyes showed, obscured by a webbed slit that “turned the world slightly blue.” In an instant, 50 percent of the Afghani population disappeared.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a former daily news reporter and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is determined to restore Afghani women to visibility. In her profile of an entrepreneur, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Lemmon describes how some women navigated the restrictions under the Taliban to support their families.
The real-life hero and title character is Kamela Sediqi. At 15, she was the oldest child at home when her mother and father, who’d worked for the previous government, fled for the north. The four remaining Sediqi sisters and their brother may have been safer without their parents; however, they were also lonely, bored, and running out of money. To pass the time they re-read their favorite books – and then their not-so-favorite books. Indeed, one of the lingering impressions of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” is the sense of restlessness. Like many Afghani women, the Sediqi sisters were well-educated and ambitious, and the days under the Taliban must have stretched in front of them like a desert in winter.
Feeling the pressure, Kamela hit on the idea of becoming a seamstress. She coaxed her older sister into teaching her how to make a dress, then recruited her brother into escorting her to the market to sell it. The scene is one of the more dramatic in the book. Kamela could have been beaten or imprisoned for speaking to a man who was not related to her, and both she and the shopkeeper took a risk when they agreed to do business. Yet Kamela accepted his order for more dresses, blurted a fake name, and hurried to get off the streets before dark.
This act of courage transformed the family and, eventually, the community. Over the next few years Kamela grew a tailoring business that employed her siblings, friends, and neighbors. The living room became a workshop, and during busy times the seamstresses worked around the clock, stopping only for prayer and tea. The business gave them more than income: it restored their purpose, community, and self-sovereignty – an element that was particularly important for widows and women who otherwise would have to depend on relatives. It does not seem an overstatement to say that it probably saved many of their lives.
The glimpse into this hidden world of women under the Taliban is so valuable that readers will likely forgive the book’s shortcomings. As a nonfiction novel, it is wanting. Most of the story is told, not shown. The dramatic arc has been leveled to a near-flat line. The dialogue is stilted and the language often tired. However, Lemmon’s reporting is suburb: she learned Dari, talked to customers and shopkeepers, seems to have become part of the Sediqi family, and did the hard work of getting the story out.
And it is because the story is so seldom told that “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” verges on required reading. At the very least, it is an important reminder of the power of the public eye. Regardless of how heroic they are, women behind closed doors seldom appear in the news or recorded history. It can be easy to forget that they even exist.
Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.