Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

By now we are all quite familiar with the strictures placed on women by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The news has bombarded us with images of the burqua-clad women trailing their male chaperones, women who had no choice but to follow the rules of one of the most repressive and highly moralistic regimes around. But what happened to the women who no longer had the protection of a male family member or of only a young boy? How on earth were they to survive in the unbending and dangerous to women world of the Taliban?

Kamila Sidiqi is one of five sisters who were still at home when the Taliban took over Kabul. She had just received her teaching degree despite the dangers posed by the civil war raging through the country when the Taliban took Kabul, trapping women in their homes and rendering Sidiqi's valuable degree useless. Worse yet for her family, her father had served under several previous governments, putting him at extreme risk and he eventually fled to some semblence of safety, leaving his family behind. Sidiqi's older brother also leaves Afghanistan for Iran in hopes of being able to find work and to avoid any reprisals against his family for his father's prior loyalties. This leaves the women of the family with only their young, school-aged brother as a chaperone and no visible means of support.

But Kamila Sidiqi is an incredibly driven and resourceful woman and she hatches the idea of creating a dressmaking business that will stave off their impending poverty. Learning to sew from an older sister, she and her sisters carefully created a viable home industry right under the noses of the Taliban. And not only did their business provide the support of their own family, but they also taught other women from the neighborhood to sew as well in order to support their families as well. Over the five year span of the Taliban's oppressive rule, Sidiqi, with only her young brother to chaperone her as she negotiated with the male shopkeepers at their local market, created a grass roots business that saved many families from starvation, especially those like her own where the older men had had no choice but to flee the country leaving their wives and daughters unprotected and without a male presence.

Lemmon traveled to and from Afghanistan for many years, through the escalating tensions, war in the street, and US bombings in order to chronicle the perseverence, determination, and entreprenurial spirit in women like Kamila Sidiqi that the Taliban had been unable to contain. Lemmon tells the story as if it was a novel, creating dialogue for her subjects despite clearly writing this years after the events she's chronicling. Lemmon's background as a journalist is very evident here as well with the writing coming across as very journalistic, simplistic, and oddly enough, given the content of the story, emotionally distant. She also periodically thrusts herself and the present day into the story she's reporting which comes off as mildly distracting. What must have been the overwhelming tension of day to day living interpsersed with moments of heart pounding terror is not all that well conveyed; instead it is reported but muffled, muted. And there seem to be some rather big omissions in Lemmon's writing about these brave Sidiqi girls. Why did the girls' mother stay in the north of Afghanistan after her husband left for Iran instead of going back to Kabul to help her daughters? How did the young women learn to sew so well so quickly that they could create a thriving cottage industry? Why was there still a market for clothing when people couldn't even find enough to eat? How did the economics of this venture work out? Why did these shopkeepers, who were also acting contrary to the Taliban's restrictions and therefore in danger, cooperate with Kamila Sidiqi and her incredibly young mahram (chaperone)?

The story itself is impressive and inspiring, putting a face on the suffering and devastation first of a militant, oppressive, and misogynistic regime and then of a terrible, destructive war but it is also the moving chronicle of unbroken spirit, the will to live, and the sort of woman who can move mountains and change the world. For those interested in another facet of the reality of Afghanistan under the Taliban, this will fill in some of the picture. That these women persevered and succeeded even in the face of threats of beatings, imprisonment, or death is incredibly awe-inspiring and humbling.

For more information about Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and the book visit her website, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I can't imagine being in Kamila's shoes for even one day. It's amazing what she's done with her life.

    Thanks for being on the tour.


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