“They knew they must stay within the limits of what was permitted by the Taliban but refused to completely shed their own sense of style.”
– The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
I did a Google Images search for “Afghanistan.” The result was a collage of maps, impressive mountain vistas, and photos of men with weapons. What other images come to mind when you hear the name? Whatever your impression or knowledge of the country is, I highly encourage you to read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
As a Harvard MBA student researching female entrepreneurs living amidst volatile political conditions, author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon set out to record stories rarely heard on broadcast news. “We’re far more accustomed to–and comfortable with–seeing women portrayed as victims of war who deserve our sympathy rather than as resilient survivors who demand our respect,” writes Lemmon, who herself worked for nearly a decade as a journalist for ABC News, and now sits on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program.
Lemmon focused her story on the strong-willed Kamila Sidiqi. Living in Khair Khana, a suburb of Afghanistan’s biggest city, Kabul, Kamila and her family lived on limited means in a war-ravaged land. After the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, residents like the Sidiqis struggled with even more limited means. Her 17-year-old brother then escaped to Pakistan to avoid the military draft, and her parents fled north in hopes of earning more money. Her 13-year-old brother was thrust into the role of mahram, a male escort to a female relative. This left Kamila to support the rest of the family, all eight of them.
Deciding that crafting women’s clothing could make a lucrative career, Kamila risked speaking to male shop owners and braved the danger of bringing attention to herself in a region where women were under very heavy scrutiny. If a woman left her home, she was required to be covered in a chadri, a.k.a.burqa, and to be with a mahram. Yet, following these rules guaranteed no safety. Despite the constant threat, Kamila’s strength, ingenuity, and bravery was stunning.
The most striking part of this story, to me, was the refusal for women to forget about their sense of style, as in the quote above. Though women were wearing the chadri outside, Kamila’s business made clothing for them to wear on the inside. In a system that didn’t recognize female individuality, these women did not let go of their own identity through the clothes that they chose to wear closest to their hearts.
Discussion question: Is personal style a necessity, regardless of the circumstances?
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