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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

April 6, 2016

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.  London : John Murray, 2011.

4 stars

A factual account that reads like fiction, by an American writer about a woman in Kabul who created a business to ensure the survival of her family and those of other women when the Taliban controlled the city.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon left her position at ABC to earn an M.B.A. at Harvard and research women entrepreneurs in war zones.  In 2005 she went to Kabul where she met Kamila Sidiqi, a young woman living in the Khair Khana section of the city, who had organized her own sisters to sew in order to survive after the Taliban took over the city.  As the Taliban stay lengthened, other women, desperate to find ways to support their families, joined in a network of clothes makers.  A sewing school emerged from the project.  With her young brother acting as a chaperone, Sidiqi moved around the city negotiating the sale of the clothes.  Eventually she was asked to join an UN-related effort to extend such enterprises.

Sidiqi’s story is full of examples of the use of the Islamic religion to control women.  Upon taking Kabul, the Taliban leaders decreed in God’s name that women should stay at home.  If forced to appear in public, they must wear a burqa or chadri which covered the entire body and face. She must also be accompanied by a male relative, even if he was only a younger brother. Foreign agencies working in Afghanistan were told not to employ local women.  These rules came as a shock after decades in which Muslim women in Kabul had put down the veil and dressed at times in European clothes.  With local men killed or away fighting, the loss of employment was devastating to women who were supporting their families.  Like many others, Kamila and her sisters were forced out of school with nothing to do while the family used up its resources.

We need to remember, the Sidiqi’s were Muslims themselves who had never known such restrictions from their religion.  The Taliban and ISIS are the exception to the rule regarding the treatment of women in Islam.  Islamic woman may also find deep meaning and peace in their own religious rituals, traditionally practiced at home separate from men’s assemblies at mosque.  While those of us from other cultures may be bothered by Islamic practices, like polygamy and the veil, many Muslim women find our individualism and lack of covering equally shocking.

Lemmon has written the story of Kamila Sidiqi in a clear narrative, complete with dialog and reading like a fiction.  As a good journalist, she has researched and uncovered a story that is too often overlooked–that of the ways women find to support their families in times of civil war and unrest.  In chaotic times women’s work may be invisible, but it is present and vital all the same.

I strongly recommend The Seamstress of Khair and Khana to readers everywhere seeking to understand what happens to women and families in war and the relationship between women and Islam.    By chance three fine books on this subject have recently appeared on my desk: this one, The Guest of the Sheik, and Marriage on the Street Corners in Tehran.  I have also post a bibliography of my own reviews about Women and Islam. I believe this is a critical subject for all of us and I hope my reviews are useful.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 6, 2016 5:52 pm

    HI Marilyn, have you read Parvana, by Deborah Ellis? It’s a children’s novel about a girl who masquerades as a boy in order to support her family after the Taliban have imprisoned her father. I read it round about the same time as the first Afghan refugees began arriving at my school and like many people, I knew almost nothing about what was going on there.

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