Maybe the subtitle of my favorite new book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon should be, “I Am Woman, Hear me Roar, “ because Ms. Lemmon does an outstanding job of showing us an insightful and moving picture of Afghan women who overcome. Lemmon is a former ABC News producer, covering presidential campaigns. She decides to change her career at age 30. Finding a subject for her MBA thesis at Harvard Business School, in International Development, she goes to Kabul, Afghanistan to interview women who are in business. When she gets there she is told there are no women with businesses, but eventually finds women who are running gas stations, exporting goods to European markets, managing hotels, and even selling woven baskets to Macy’s.
Lemmon finds Kamila, our young heroine, who leads her five sisters and numerous other female employees in a forbidden home business, where her sister Malika teaches Kamila to sew, and then make dresses, selling to nervous shop keepers, friends, and sequestered neighbors. Not long before the chauvinistic Taliban took over, (right after the Soviets departed in the 1990’s), Kamila had gotten her teaching certificate. With the takeover by the dreaded Taliban, all the schools for women were shut down, women were forbidden to work, and were not even allowed to go anywhere without a male escort.
Kamila goes on a bus trip with her sister, but without her “mahram,” male companion. She barely escapes being sent to prison by one of the Vice and Virtue Forces, “What kind of women are you?” Then he turned and shouted to the driver, “I am taking these women to prison.” Only by telling him what important work he does, building his ego, does she manage to get away.
One morning a well-dressed Muslim woman comes to her door begging her to make a wedding dress for her daughter, then four more dresses for the wedding party. The catch being that it must be completed by the next day. Kamila hates to turn anyone down, so she accepts the assignment. The girls work all night to complete the job. When Kamila helps the woman take the dresses to her car, she is shocked by what she discovers. Taliban vehicles are sitting in front of her home. The dresses are for a Talib wedding. The hypocrisy of the Taliban is continually exposed, as everyone from the shop keepers, to the lower level Taliban members, pay lip service to the feared Taliban. A friend’s father, working as a policeman for the Taliban, patrols the neighboring streets, watching out for people, and sending Kamila and her sisters word that they won’t have a problem, “as long as no men come to work for her.”
A humorous moment involves a famous movie. When “Titanic fever” overtakes Kabul another Taliban father turns a blind eye, as the excited teens come to his home to watch the banned movie. Wedding cakes take on the form of the famous ocean liner, the local market is renamed “Titanic Bazaar,” and the young men are hauled away to jail for “Jack Dawson” haircuts!
They never know if, or when, they will be caught, but they keep on bravely working for their family. They live through the first Taliban Regime, and then are freed by the Northern Alliance soldiers. Finally, after 911 the Taliban is in control again. They do not know if they will live through another war. Kamila and her family depend on their faith, and staying strong for one another for survival.
We may think of Muslim women as Stepford wives, but this well researched book, shows us a totally different picture! The women are empowered, tenacious, and resourceful. If you like a book about courageous women who overcome incredible odds, read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. It will not disappoint!
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe is available at bookstores nationwide.
Review by Broad “D” – Donna Presnal
We received a copy of this title for our book review. All opinions are our own.