In Kabul, A 'Dressmaker' Sows Entrepreneurial Seeds
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:11 am
In September 1996, when Kamila Sidiqi was a teenager, the Taliban overtook Kabul. Sidiqi's father and a brother had to flee for political reasons, leaving Sidiqi to care for her family. The Taliban soon forbade women to work outside the home or to attend school, and if a woman did not have a husband, father or brother, she would have to support herself somehow in secret.
To earn money for the family, Sidiqi asked her sister to teach her to sew — and she eventually grew a sewing business out of her home, employing over 100 women from her neighborhood. In a new book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells Sidiqi's story of opening a small business in the midst of civil war and an atmosphere of repression.
The peril of making her first sale made clear the danger Sidiqi would be braving. She and her brother (acting as her chaperone) tried to take a main road to a shop in one of Kabul's markets but encountered Taliban-manned checkpoints all along the way. She finally got to the store by weaving through back roads instead, and showed the shopkeeper her wares.
Pleased with what he saw, the shopkeeper noted how difficult it now was to import affordable goods from Pakistan. He requested several more items and asked if she could also make pantsuits for his shop.
"She had no idea how to make them, but she said, 'Yes, yes, we'll be happy to make them for you,' " Lemmon tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition. "And he was probably the first bit of hope she had had in months."
Sidiqi soon had dozens of women working for her making clothes; she grew so successful that she was asked — unknowingly — to make dresses for a Taliban wedding. A woman rushed into Sidiqi's house and said she needed two gowns in 24 hours. Noticing how many women sat in Sidiqi's house to sew, the woman upped her order to six gowns.
"They're rushing, rushing, trying to get these brides and the mother and the sister all outfitted for this wedding, and then at the end, a young girl who was working with them ... takes out the gowns to the car and realizes that it's a wedding procession, and not only is it a wedding procession, but it's a wedding procession led by Taliban for a Taliban wedding," Lemmon says.
From the outside, the years under Taliban rule seemed overwhelmingly oppressive for women. But negotiations within their communities allowed life to happen during that time. Many women navigated the rules during the civil war to get permission to keep a small business going, or to have their male family members sell the goods they'd make.
And some members of the Taliban were just members of the community who needed to earn a living, Lemmon says. Because they too needed money, their daughters sometimes went to work for Sidiqi as dressmakers.
The country's isolation — caused by the Taliban's closure of trade and road blockades — created a unique market opportunity, Lemmon says: "Women do what women do in war ... they find a way to pull families through."
Today, Sidiqi runs a business consultancy called Kaweyan, which teaches entrepreneurship skills to Afghans around the country. It's her third business, and she says she realized how good she had become in the field because of the difficulties she faced and the opportunities she unearthed for herself during the Taliban years.
She began the project of supporting her family and her community through sewing when she was barely 20 years old herself — a fact her father told Lemmon he greatly appreciates.
"Her father said to me: 'First God, then I, then Kamila cared for our family, and made sure that we were provided for. ... I'm so happy someone is telling this story, because she was so brave at such an impossible time.' "
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, women's lives changed overnight.
Ms. GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON (Author, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana"): It really did become virtual house arrest because the uncertainty meant that everybody kept their girls inside, and then the radio broadcast all these new rules. You know, women cannot be out of the house without a chaperone, women cannot be out of the house without a chador(ph), a burka; women cannot go to school; women cannot be working. And these girls who had been out in the world studying, you know, to helping their families, contributing to their families, found themselves indoors with no place to go.
MONTAGNE: That's journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. On a reporting trip to Kabul several years ago, she met a young woman named Kamila Sidiqi. She had been a teenager when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Kamila Sidiqi's father and older brother were forced to flee and she was forced to support a house full of younger siblings. Though she had dreams of being a teacher, Kamila turned to sewing and became a dressmaker.
In a new book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," Lemmon recounts how Kamila managed to prosper despite the restrictions she faced.
Tell us about her first sale and what that meant to her.
Ms. LEMMON: So this was a day in Kabul. She and her brother, who was her chaperone, they tried to take the main road, but they quickly realized the Talibs were really manning a lot of checkpoints along the way. So they weaved through the back roads and went into the store, showed the first shopkeeper this sample that her sister had helped her to make. And instead of saying outright, oh no, I'll never buy this, the shopkeeper said, you know, it's really hard to get to Pakistan right now, it's really hard to find goods that people can still afford. We'll take several. And in fact, what I'd really like to see was some pantsuits. Can you make those?
She immediately jumped. I mean, she had no idea how to make them. But she said, yes, yes, we'll be happy to make them for you. And he was probably the first bit of hope she had had in months. And she looked at him and said, OK, now we're going to work.
MONTAGNE: Eventually, as you tell the story, Kamila had dozens of women working for her. And the business was so successful that they were asked to make gowns for a Taliban wedding.
Ms. LEMMON: Well, what's funny about that story is that Kamila and her sisters had no idea. This woman rushed in and said we have - we need - in 24 hours we need two gowns. They said OK. Then they looked around and saw how many girls were working at Kamila's house and said wait a minute, we actually need six gowns. And so they're rushing, rushing, trying to get these brides and the mother and the sister all outfitted for this wedding.
And then at the end a young girl who was working with them and Kamila's brother take out the gowns to the car and realize that it's a wedding procession, and not only is it a wedding procession, but it's a wedding procession led by Taliban for a Taliban wedding.
MONTAGNE: This is a very telling story because in fact during those years, from the outside, the Taliban looked monolithic. It was a pretty straightforward oppressive situation. In fact, there were a lot of negotiations that allowed a lot of life to happen during that time. And I'm wondering, you know, in writing this book, how many women really - in your estimation - did in fact work during this time?
Ms. LEMMON: Life became a negotiation for women under the Taliban. And because women do what women do in war, which is they find a way to pull families through, so many women found a way to navigate the rules, where they would either win enough permission to keep whatever small business they had going or they found enough help in terms of the men in their family to sell things that earn them money.
So you had women working around the rules throughout the entirety of the Taliban era, and they never were monolithic. There were always negotiations which could and were being made. And you had Taliban who were just members of the community who needed to earn a living. And some of them, in fact, in the book actually send their daughters to work with Kamila, because they need the money.
MONTAGNE: You know, in my experience as well, Afghanistan is a nation of entrepreneurs. This is a natural for people there, and it would seem women, if they only have a chance. And they oddly had a chance under the Taliban because the nation was so isolated.
Ms. LEMMON: It's interesting. There was a market opportunity in some ways because of the country's isolation. So in some ways you could say that the openings women seized for themselves at an incredibly difficult and oppressive time allowed them to continue growing, even when all the opportunities around them closed.
MONTAGNE: What is Kamila Sidiqi doing today?
Ms. LEMMON: She is an entrepreneur now on her third business. She runs a business consultancy called Kaweyan, which teaches entrepreneurship skills to Afghans all around the country. And you know, she discovered how good she was at business because of all the difficulties and the opportunities she unearthed for herself during the Taliban years.
MONTAGNE: But I also think the wonderful thing about it that she was able to take care of her family through dint of her own drive and creativity about how she did things. Is that still the case?
Ms. LEMMON: She is still a leader in her family. Her father said to me: First God, then I, then Kamila cared for our family and made sure that we were provided for. Both her father and her brother, who was in Iran for most of the time, say, you know, I'm so happy that someone is telling this story because she was so brave at such an impossible time and she made sure all of us were cared for. She made sure all of us were supported. And she was barely 20 herself.
MONTAGNE: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story of Kamila Sidiqi in the new book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." You can read an excerpt at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.