Bored, waiting at the terminal to board my flight, since the data-card wasn’t working, I walked over to Crossword to look for something to read. I ended up torn between a collection of travel essays and another novel (the names of which I do not remember anymore) and as I was trying to choose, my eye fell on the cover of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana – the spine, with images of patches of fabrics and a prominent thimble and a needle with a bright pink thread. Drawn towards the image, I reached out for the book to read more.
On the back cover I found a review by Angelina Jolie: “Against all odds, these young women created hope and community, and they never gave up. This book is guaranteed to move you -and to show you a side of Afghanistan few ever see.”
I flipped the cover to find a photograph and brief introduction to the author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and another review by Greg Mortensen, author of Three Cups of Tea:
“Kamila’s Siddiqui’s unforgettable story shows just how far we are willing to go for those we love.”
Convinced, I abandoned the other two books and marched over to the counter to pay. I quickly walked over to the boarding gate and settled myself down to start reading the introduction. Stopping only to board the flight, fifteen minutes later, I found myself completely engrossed in the book, so much so that I was almost annoyed with the pilot for landing 20 minutes early.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is neither fiction, nor a completely journalist report of the lives of women in Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Gayle doesn’t narrate the story of women who were victims. She narrates the story of survivors, of women who took on responsibility of running the house and ensuring that their families survived the worst. She narrates the story Kamila Siddiqui, a young, determined and courageous woman who had just graduated from a teacher-training institute when the Talibs took over Kabul.
Overnight, the life in Kabul changed. The country had known much upheaval and had been torn apart by the numerous political conflicts and civil war, but nothing had been as bad as this. Afghanistani women were wearing fashionable European clothes till the 70s and mingling freely with the opposite sex. Under the rule of Mujahidin, social and dress codes were stricter, but women continued to work and wear trousers and high-heeled shoes albeit with a headscarf. The Taliban however dictated a different rule, seeing women as an immoral temptation, forcing them to stay indoors and wear a full veil so that no body part was visible.
The striking similarity in the reaction of Gayle who wears a headscarf for the first time on her way to Kabul and Malika when she donned the chadri (full veil) for the first time moved me. Like many, I too had assumed the all Muslim women were accustomed to the veil, especially in Afghanistan. The description of how Malika struggled to “maneuver among the slippery pleats and panels” and not trip when she walked was not very different from Gayle’s own struggle to keep the headscarf in place as she crossed the Tarmac on Kabul International airport.
Within a few years, families that were earlier well-off were struggling to survive, as two income families were reduced to depending on the man’s income since women were no longer allowed to step out, leave alone work. It was under such circumstances that Kamila, frustrated at having to sit at home instead of pursuing further studies at University, and worried about the increasing financial burden on her father and brother, decided to pick up a needle and thread and start a business of her own.
Starting off small, with her five sisters to help her create dresses which she sold to a couple of small boutiques in the markets close to her home in Khair Khana, Kamila gradually expanded her business, providing employment to many women in her neighborhood. Never a dressmaker at heart, Kamila moved on to other opportunities, but her small but thriving dressmaking workshop continued to provide employment and hope to women until the war ended. Kamila’s story grabbed my attention, taking me on an amazing journey through unknown terrains of political, social and cultural upheaval. But what truly moved me were the stories of the women with whom Kamila worked and their stories of resilience, determination and survival.
Another critic, Tina Brown remarks that Kamila’s story “serves as a reminder that Afghanistan can never thrive until it embraces the active involvement of women – with their resourcefulness, spirit and resilience – in its leadership and future.” Most of the women who worked with Kamila during the Taliban regime continue to work today, many having successfully earned University degrees. Kamila herself went on to work with International organizations and has setup another business with the same aim to educate and empower and provide employment women across the country.
I finished the remaining 40 pages of the book as soon as I boarded my return flight. A riveting story that will stay with me for a very long time, I would personally recommend it to everyone.