In September 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul. At the same time, Kamila Sidiqi received her teaching certificate. She planned to go to university and become a literature professor someday. Her father, a former military officer, always stressed education for his daughters as well as his sons. But under Taliban rule, Kamila was left in charge of her younger sisters and brother after her parents and older brother were forced to flee. Banished from the streets, she managed to start a dressmaking business in her home. Foreign policy expert and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story of how this 19-year old created work and hope for her family and other women in her neighborhood.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' women and foreign policy program and a former journalist with ABC News.
*Please note: Due to a technical problem, the comments that our audience posted on this page earlier today were lost. We apologize for the problem and any inconvenience it has caused.
We received many questions from our audience asking how to go about donating dress patterns for use in Afghanistan. We’d like to thank you for your generosity and direct you to Gayle’s website where you can send her a message via a contact form and find out more about her and the dressmakers she wrote about. She checks her messages submitted through the contact form daily.
Q:Although I’m delighted to hear of this young woman who managed to beat the odds and create her own business, I’m a little worried that the show only focused on the rosy side of the story. It is almost as if you’re trying to say, “See, the Taliban wasn’t so bad for women.” I have never doubted that women were wonderful and could overcome obstacles. What I’d like to know is how her story might help the conditions of women in her country. This young woman just gave birth to a baby girl – what will be her future? – From Elsa via Email
A: I appreciate your question, and it is something I have thought a lot about. You will see in the book that the darker side of the Taliban years is very much in evidence and the fear is absolutely constant. But I did want to emphasize the hope that these women managed to create against an incredibly grim backdrop, especially at a time when everyone feels they know the Taliban story.
Q: *Kabul is one of the safest places in Afghanistan at this point. Do you think these women would have been able to get their business off the ground anywhere else but Kabul? * – From Kathleen
A: Women worked throughout Afghanistan during the Taliban years, even in Kandahar. And actually Kabul was much tougher than much of rural Afghanistan because the Taliban viewed the city as Sodom and Gomorrah and cracked down harder there. So while it may be more secure now, it was not then.
Q:Did you have any reservations writing a book about a Muslim woman and Muslim culture, being (I am assuming) a non-Muslim yourself? How did you get past that concern? Did you feel like you had to get an unlisted phone number? Once published, were there any negative reactions from Muslim readers? – From Jewel in Utah
A: This to me was a universal story of family and faith. Just as faith provides comfort and strength for many in the U.S., it is at the center of Kamila’s family and her story. I wanted to convey that to readers – the universality of faith rather than what divides us.
Q:If everyone was broke what did they do for money? Did they do any bartering? – From @ButterflyMcGrew via Twitter
A: Bartering was very much in play – people traded goods and services regularly. What I meant by the lack of money was that times were incredibly tough so that saving was impossible and just getting by – feeding your family and caring for those who counted on you – was all you could hope for.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. During the five years when the Taliban ruled, Afghanistan women were not permitted to work. They were banned from the streets unless they were completely covered and accompanied by a male escort. In a new book titled, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a foreign policy expert and journalist tells the story of a young woman who managed to start a business despite the odds against her.
MS. DIANE REHMGayle Tzemach Lemmon is with me in the studio to talk about an Afghan entrepreneur named Kamila Sidiqi and throughout the hour, I'll welcome your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com Good morning to you, Gayle, it's good to have you here.
MS. GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMONGood morning. I'm delighted to be here.
REHMAnd I gather you've been listening to the program online in Afghanistan?
LEMMONI have. In fact, I have spent a lot of time in Kabul particularly when security was bad. It was my comfort food, was listening to WAMU and listening to you on the air actually overnight streamed live.
REHMBecause you are a native of the area?
LEMMONI am. I grew up in Greenbelt, Md. right next to the University of Maryland so I'm a local here.
REHMTalk about how you first came into contact with Kamila Sidiqi.
LEMMONI was in Afghanistan for the first time in December of 2005 writing about women entrepreneurs in war zones. And everybody kept telling me there was no story, that women, you know, didn't start businesses in these kinds of places. And I really felt certain that there was this story there. We just hadn't taken the time to actually find it.
LEMMONSo I was interviewing this young woman in the very cold offices of Mercy Corps in December of 2005 and I said, what are you doing now? And she said, well, I've just turned down a very well-paying job in an NGO to start my own company and I'm going to teach entrepreneurship skills to Afghans around the country. And as we say in the book in the epilogue -- I said, well, wait a minute, you know, why would you ever do that? And she said, because I believe that business is the key to Afghanistan's future and business is really what's going to make this country stronger and make it more prosperous.
LEMMONAnd she started to wax poetically about the power of entrepreneurship. And I said, how do you know so much? Because I'm barely 30 and I know you're not 30. And she said, oh, I had this great business during the Taliban that created all these jobs for women during those years. And I had this sort of eureka moment as a reporter because I think, like so many people, I thought that women were sort of shut indoors only for those years of the Taliban. And yet here were these girls who had been breadwinners during years that they weren't even supposed to be on the streets.
LEMMONAnd I just felt I had to bring that story to readers.
REHMYou know, I had nervous chills when you first got off the plane in Kabul because you were supposed to have a driver meet you. Your cell phone didn't work there in Afghanistan and yet he was out there waiting for you for two hours because he wasn't allowed to come in because of security.
LEMMONWe talked about this in the introduction of the book. I was nervous about making the introduction first person and my editors really pushed me on this because I think that I really learned so much. Writing this journey, I think I grew up with the book.
LEMMONI landed in Kabul. I had no idea where I was supposed to go or with whom I was supposed to meet. I had a fixer, my colleague Mohammed, who is a main character in this book really and in this story and he wasn't there. And I saw all these families sort of embracing one another and I was, you know, wondering where...
REHMYou were alone.
LEMMONYes, the only thing I saw was a British forces tank and I'd never actually found comfort in a British forces tank until you are stuck by yourself at the Afghan, Kabul airport wondering where in the world your driver is.
REHMSo you ventured out?
LEMMONI finally paid $5 to a guy who was selling juices at the side of the airport and I said, can I borrow your phone? Here's $5. And I called Mohammed, my colleague, and I said, you know, I'm the American journalist. Where are you? And he said, oh, Gayle, this is Afghanistan. It's security reasons. I'm two parking lots away. I can't get any closer because of security, because the airport is a target. And bombings -- obviously, it would be a massive target if people could get closer. So that was my first introduction to life in a really fragile conflict zone.
LEMMONRight. So I walked out the two football fields with my trolley, with my suitcase trying to keep my headscarf on and I met him there at the airport and that started a long professional relationship which continues today.
REHMAnd where did you stay while you were there?
LEMMONI stayed at a house with a group of aid workers and, at that time, some security contractors who had a room to let. I didn't really know that many people who could have a room at that time because space is actually very limited in Afghanistan. Everybody wants to live in one of the few houses where there's, you know, good power, good water, occasional internet access, those kinds of things. And so I found a room to let with a bunch of other aid workers.
REHMAnd how long was it before you finally met Kamila?
LEMMONThat trip, the first time I met her was about two weeks into a trip that I had taken. And I was pretty desperate because I had met a lot of women who were running non-governmental NGOs, right, charity organizations but not that many entrepreneurs. And when I met her, I realized that she was the real deal. She was somebody who had been in business, who had really seen the power of business to change people's lives. And you know, when she started telling me about her business under the Taliban, I was completely hooked.
REHMWhen you first met her, did she tell you about her family and the fact that her father had believed so strongly in education, but had taken his wife and his eldest son out of the country?
LEMMONNo. And Afghanistan is a place where people have been through so much. You really have to work to earn people's trust and to deserve to hear their stories. And I feel very strongly that it's a privilege to tell people's stories when people have been through so much. I knew that she was an incredibly courageous and a brave young woman, that much was apparent very obviously from the moment I met her.
LEMMONAnd we had a lot in common. We were both sort of just about around our 30s and both of us had parents who wanted us to get married. Both of us had parents who thought we were crazy to do the work that we were doing, you know, because she had just started her third company rather than going to work for one of the international aid groups. So we bonded, I think, about that and I realized how much we had in common, despite how different the backdrop was.
REHMBut was she living alone, at that point?
LEMMONShe was living with her family in Khair Khana in actually the same house where this story takes place, where she built her dressmaking business.
REHMAnd how many people were with her?
LEMMONAt that point, she had about eight members of her family living with her.
REHMGosh, but her father, her mother, eldest brother were not there?
LEMMONThat's right. Now during the Taliban years, she had been the head of her household so her father and her brother had to leave Kabul because of security reasons. And so she was left as a 19-year-old young woman at the head of a family of five brothers and sisters. And she really did need to figure out how she was going to make it work because she knew her family was counting on her. And I think, like so many people in this country can relate to, when your family needs you, you step up and that's what these young women did. And that's what she did in starting this business.
REHMHow did she begin?
LEMMONShe was a teacher so commonly was a teacher who had never learned to sew in her whole life. And in fact, I think, like so many educated women, she had never learned the lessons her mother tried to pass down in terms of how do you make a dress and how do you do very practical things. She had been so busy with her studies. But when the Taliban came, overnight life changed.
LEMMONNo women could work. No women could go to school and life on the street really became impossible for women. And so she thought, okay, my family needs me so what in the world am I going to do? And so she did the one thing she could, which is she started a business in her living room. And she really, you know, thought about it for a while. What is it that I could make money doing? And she realized that even if she didn't know how to sew, her older sister did.
LEMMONSo one of the first scenes of the book is her going by herself and taking that risk in the early days of the Taliban to ask her sister Malika to teach her how to sew. And so they spent an afternoon learning in a very crash course way about how to make a party dress that she could then take to shopkeepers in Kabul.
REHMAnd the book we're talking about is called, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana". Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is on the program with me. We do welcome your calls, your questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Send us a tweet and join us on Facebook. I look forward to hearing from you. Why didn't her parents take her with them?
LEMMONThat was my first question because when you think about a house full of girls during the Taliban, your initial instinct is to think, aren't they in danger? And isn't this a terrible idea for her parents to leave her? But what happened was that security was actually better in Kabul in some ways during the Taliban than it had been in those years preceding the Taliban, during the civil war. And so she was left there to run the household and to make sure that their family didn't lose the property because the trip to Pakistan where so many people took their girls at that time was very risky.
LEMMONIt was two days through the mountains and you were really reliant upon the goodwill of your guide and your driver. And her father said, I am not taking the risk of anything happening to my four girls because one man traveling with four girls and his wife, you can imagine the fear that he faced in making that decision. And he really just decided that the best thing to do for his family was to keep those girls in Kabul.
REHMWhat was the neighborhood like that she was living in?
LEMMONThe neighborhood is a largely Tajik, I think, neighborhood in the north of Kabul and it's fairly middleclass. But what had been middleclass during the war became pretty destitute at the end of the civil war and certainly during the Taliban. Because I think during the Taliban years, what people forget is that the economy absolutely collapsed at the same time that the political situation turned really deadly for women.
REHMWe're talking about a new book. It's called, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," five sisters, one remarkable family and the woman who risked everything to keep them safe. Short break, your calls when we come back, stay with us.
REHMAnd we're talking about a new book titled "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." And that, by the way, is spelled K-H-A-I-R K-H-A-N-A, but pronounced as though it were C-A-R and then Khana. Gail Tzemach Lemmon is here in the studio. We're talking about the work she did as a reporter finding a young woman named Kamela Sediqi, who established a business stitching. And we have a first e-mail which says -- and this is from Jan in Cleveland, Ohio. "Never underestimate the power of stitching, enculturation and strength through the eye of a needle." What a beautiful thing to say.
LEMMONIt's beautiful. And I think never underestimate is the words that I think -- those are so powerful because we are so used to seeing women as victims of war to be pitied rather than survivors of war to be respected. And...
REHMAnd she was determined to be respected.
LEMMONAbsolutely. And I think she was, through this business. She really did create a lifeline for women at a time of real desperation. And not only that, they also created community. So these young women would come to her house and they would work the whole time, but they would also listen to music on little -- very low volume on a cassette. They'd swap jokes, they would talk about school. It was really, as one young woman told me, it was the only place that we could really forget about war.
REHMTell me how that first assignment came.
LEMMONMy first assignment...
LEMMON...or her first subject?
LEMMONShe decided to take this dress that her sister had taught her to make and she went to a local bizarre with her brother. So at this time, young women could not leave their homes without a chaperone. And even a 13-year-old boy was enough to be safe on the streets because he was her (speaks foreign language) her chaperone. So her younger brother, Aheem (sp?) and she set off for the market. And she doesn't tell him what she's going to do because she doesn't want to put him at risk in case they're stopped. And they immediately realize as they walk out that the Taliban is all over the place.
REHMAnd she's completely covered.
LEMMONExactly. She is wearing a burqa, one of the first times she had every worn a burqa, and sees the Taliban everywhere. And even though they weren't doing anything wrong, she thought, better that we stay away. So they know their neighborhood better, they take the backstreets. They take about 15 minutes longer than it should've to make the trip to the bazaar and they show up. And they get there and they see this shopkeeper who they had known over the years. And she walks in and pretends to be shopping. And finally, she gets the shopkeeper's attention and sort of surreptitiously slides the blue dress across the counter and says, look, my sisters and I have started this business. Is there a chance that you might want to buy this dress?
REHMGood for her.
LEMMONExactly. And he looks at the dress and looks at her and looks at her brother and says very quietly, yes, I would. But we actually could use more pantsuits than we could use dresses. Can you do that? And she says, yes.
LEMMONYeah, so very large tops with pretty loose fitting bottoms because dresses were more expensive, right. And people needed occasions for them. And while those were popular, it was really the clothing that people in the provinces were using that they needed more of during the Taliban time because so many people of means left. So the people who were left in the country and certainly left around Kabul were people who had less money.
REHMHow did they buy fabric?
LEMMONA lot of the times the shopkeepers gave it to them because the shopkeepers kept on hand stores of fabric for the clothing that they wore making or selling themselves. So they would give them some of the fabric that they wanted. And then, as you see later in the book, Kamela will become such a savvy entrepreneur that she thinks she's paying too much for the fabric that she buys. So she and her brother go to downtown Kabul to the wholesale market and she starts negotiating for better prices because then she knows she can earn more money and employ more women. And that was really what it was about for her was employing women.
REHMHow many women did she end up employing?
LEMMONAnd girls and women would come to her door at all times. There's a scene in the book very early on when Saherajon (sp?) who is the widow who has three children who are counting on her comes to Kamela's door and says, look, my husband is dead. He was a high school principal who passed away suddenly and she was relying upon her brothers-in-law to support her. But when the Taliban came, all three of those men lost their jobs because the economy really stopped functioning. And so she had no way to support her children.
LEMMONAnd she showed up on Kamela's door step and said, look, I've never worked in my life, but I know how to sew. And if you have work, I'm willing to do it. And Kamela said, I just -- of course, I just couldn't turn her away. How could you at that time? You needed to do everything you could for your community. And it turns out to be a brilliant hire because she has become the supervisor of the whole factory -- what becomes a real factory eventually.
REHMNow, it starts out in Kamela's house; is that correct?
REHMHow many could fit into Kamela's house?
LEMMONWell, what happened, they started in the living room and they had just a couple sitting rooms basically plus the bedrooms.
REHMAnd did they have sewing machines?
LEMMONThey did not. Most of the time, they started sewing by hand and then eventually they earned enough money to buy some sewing machines. But you only had power a couple of hours a day in Kabul. So you would run to plug in -- and these young women would talk to me about they would all wait for the power to come on. But the iron, for example, they didn't -- they rarely used a plug-in iron. They would use hot -- you know, they would heat the iron on a burner and then press everything that they made. And, you know, because you were always using whatever opportunity you could to make your work go faster so that you could take on more work and earn more money and hire more women.
REHMSo eventually, what was the maximum number within her home?
LEMMONSo she ended up having about 30 women at any one time sort of, you know, all...
LEMMON...and there were a lot of young women and they would sort of work in corners and hang out together in circles and start sewing together. And they spent a lot of time making sure that their orders were done on time. Because Kamela, we must run a professional business. We may be young women, but we are as professional as they come. And she really emphasized that to these girls. So she had a whole schedule for them so that any young woman knew exactly what day they were supposed to come and at what time. Because this was another part of avoiding the real ire of the Taliban, which was never have too many women at one time at your house so that you don't attract too much attention. And, you know, you don't ever get shut down, which could have happened at any time.
REHMThen certainly you'd have to have a man escort you to Kamela's house.
LEMMONYes, although a lot of young women I talked to would either make their brothers walk them halfway and then they would sort of, you know...
LEMMON...go fast. Right.
LEMMONThey would go very quickly halfway. And they would sometimes go together with a group of girls, let's say, six girls going together with one brother. And, you know, they would see whose brother was available. And that would happen a lot, actually. You know, can your brother do it? He's at school. No, well, grab your brother and so take him. And that's how they got there.
REHMGayle, tell me about the way in which she received orders. How did people find out what she was doing? Obviously, that first blue dress at the shop got things started. But how did people find out about her?
LEMMONWord of mouth in Kabul is possibly the fastest form of communication on the planet. People are always talking, gossip is always spreading and rumors can travel more quickly in Kabul than in anyplace I have ever seen in my world travels. So what happened was she started with one shopkeeper and then his brother also came down to escape the fighting in the north so he said, I'll introduce you to my brother. He also has a shop. Then that became their second customer. And then, they found a third customer through that customer. And so she was always going back to the shopkeeper saying, are these men good? Because the danger was that you'd work with the wrong person.
LEMMONAnd so she would go to the people that she knew she could trust and say, this shopkeeper has asked me to make dresses for him. What do you think? And, you know, the people that she trusted would tell her whether or not you could trust them because the dangers were very real every time these girls walked out of the house. And in the book, I really tried to capture that level of fear that you have to live with at basically every moment that you leave the house when you're living under a regime that really doesn't want women on the streets.
REHMHow far did Sediqi live from the shop?
LEMMONShe lived about 15 minutes walking...
LEMMON...if you walked directly and about 45 minutes walking when you take the back roads. And, you know, these girls were often on foot because taking a taxi was very expensive and they didn't want to waste the money and they didn't really have the money to spend on those kinds of things. I mean, people were really doing everything they could to save what money they could. And people were so desperate they were selling baby dolls and shoe laces and windows and doors on blankets on the streets in Kabul. And that's why a business like this mattered so much because earning an income really was nearly impossible.
REHMWhen you first met Kamela, how long had she been involved in doing business?
LEMMONSo at that time, she had been an entrepreneur for almost ten years...
REHMOh, my goodness.
LEMMON...because she had started in the early years of the Taliban. And the first time we met was in 2005 when she was starting her third company, this business consultancy that she had really learned the basics of from starting this dressmaking business during the Taliban.
REHMThere is a wonderful scene in the book where she is asked to make three dresses at one time. How in the world did she manage?
LEMMONThis was a moment where a woman shows up at their house, very frantic, and says, I have been looking all day -- to your question about how do you find out about women who are sewing -- but someone told me that you have this dressmaking operation here. My daughter's getting married. She needs dresses and she needs them by tomorrow. So...
LEMMONTomorrow. So they said, well, wait a minute, you know, I don't know if we can do this. And they all start talking and say, okay, well, we have enough girls here. But then the woman looks around Kamela's living room and sees how many young women are there and says, well, wait a minute. If you only -- if I see this many women working, you know, actually we need six dresses.
LEMMONAnd so she says, well, I'm not quite sure that we can do six. But then all the girls looked at each other and the woman says, look, I am really desperate because I have gone all over the city and I cannot find a shop like this -- a factory like this where young women are working and can do all of this work overnight. So the girls get together, they ask all the young women who can to stay late. They all work on the dresses. They bring the women in and it turns out they are actually wedding dresses. So they're fitting these women all night, the bride and the two sisters and a mother for all their gowns that they will need for this wedding. And they show up the next day far earlier than expected.
LEMMONSo Kamela says, oh, my god. So they're all running around the home literally with pins trying to undo the pins and do the final hems and do the stitching that needs to be done. And they finally get it done and the woman is saying, look, it doesn't have to be perfect, just finish because we need to leave. So they can't figure out what the rush is and all of a sudden, they put all the dresses in a packet and a young little girl, who's about seven who was working with them, decides...
REHMSeven years old.
LEMMONSeven years old, yes, who was -- and her own mother had asked Kamela to take her in and to employ her daughter because they really couldn't afford to feed all the children in their family. So this young woman is their helper. So she takes the big packet of dresses that these girls have spent the entire night making and she walks them out to the street. And what she finds is that, yes, it’s a wedding, but it's actually a Taliban wedding that they have just spent the last 24 hours making wedding dresses for.
REHMWow. "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana" and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." When you think about a seven-year-old working in that kind -- how much would she pay them? Would she be able to pay them a living wage?
LEMMONWell, really, the mother had asked her just to take her in...
LEMMON...and to make her a helper...
LEMMON...because they couldn't afford to feed all of the kids (unintelligible) .
REHMShe couldn't afford to feed her so she was living with Kamela.
LEMMONMost of the time. And she would go home and she -- her family only lived a street over so she would see her parents. But this just shows you, I think, the real desperation of the times that people could not afford to take care of all the children they had. And so Kamela said, of course I will take her in. And also young girls were seen almost as boys so they could be handy like go out in the street and take the dresses out or run to the market across the street when they needed to. Girls grew up quickly.
REHMWhat sort of relationship did Kamela have with her sister, Malika?
LEMMONIncredibly close. Almost maternal because they were, you know, nine girls and two boys in this family so her mother had her hands full. And she's very close to both of them.
LEMMONNo, nine girls.
REHMNine girls and two boys. And the youngest boy stayed...
LEMMONThat's right. And the oldest had to leave because of security. So the youngest boy becomes the lifeline for them, in terms of being a chaperone any time they needed to leave the house.
REHMDidn't the father also worry that if the girls were seen that there would be lots of marriage proposals?
LEMMONThat's exactly right. He was really fearful that if he took them to the north of Afghanistan with him where he goes at first, that they would be besieged by marriage proposals. And he really believed that they needed to get educated, whenever that could happen and that he was not going to have his 19-year-old daughters married off without their consent. And it would be very difficult to say no if your neighbors were asking.
REHMSo this business went on and grew and grew.
REHMIn the end, how many pieces of clothing were they producing in a given month?
LEMMONSeveral hundred in a given month because they had about eight or nine shopkeepers that they actually were supplying by the end. And I interviewed several of them who said, look, we just -- we helped our sisters because we needed the help, too, and we couldn't say no to people we knew needed work.
REHMYou know, here in the United States, most people who sew -- and I used to be one of them -- use patterns. You know, you'd...
REHM...buy a Vogue pattern...
REHM...or whatever it was and you'd have something to go by.
REHMYou'd have the right size...
REHM...you'd alter the pattern. What did they do?
LEMMONThey would take a sample and sort of mock it up. And Kamela's sister Malika, who was the -- who taught her how to sew, loved sewing and she was an incredibly talented seamstress. So she would take dresses apart and put them back together. And she would, you know, often, before the Taliban, would go and look at the French fashions that Kabul women used to wear and buy them from the secondhand stalls. You know, because women used to wear skirts and dresses and those kinds of very western clothing. And so she would mock up those things and take them inside out and then sew them back in.
REHMYou know, once when I was in high school -- I guess I was in junior high school and my sister was in high school and she went out for cheerleaders and she made it. But my mother did not want to buy a skirt. So my sister brought home one of the...
REHMAnd my mother copied it.
LEMMONIt's amazing, right.
REHMYou know, no pattern, nothing.
LEMMONNo guide, nothing.
REHMNo guide, just knew how to do it. I was never able to do that kind of sewing, but I'll tell you I'll never forget that.
LEMMONAnd, you know, for Kamela she was -- no, she had no idea how to sew at the beginning. And her sister was such a good seamstress and really gave her this crash course over an afternoon. And so then she had to go home and teach her sisters and was so grateful when Malika moved into their house again because she was like, thank goodness we have a teacher.
REHMWe're talking about a new book called "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana" and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is with me. Join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the fascinating story of the young woman who braved everything to make a living under the Taliban. Her name is Kamila Sidiqi and she was in Afghanistan. She told her story to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and the new book that Gayle has written is titled, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." We're going to open the phones now 800-433-8850. First to Rochester, N.Y., good morning, Barbara, you're on the air.
BARBARAGood morning. I'm just delighted to hear this wonderful story of women always being so creative and the answer to everything. And I just wanted to comment – I'm calling from Rochester, New York, which if, of course, the home of Susan B. Anthony, and I'd love to invite all of you to come visit the Susan B. Anthony House.
BARBARAAnd I thought that it was a perfect time to remember her famous phrase, Failure is impossible, because if there was every an example of it, this is it.
REHMI'm so glad you called with that. Gayle, that had to have been Kamila's underlying thought.
LEMMONYes. I asked her, did you ever think about stopping?
LEMMONBecause the risks were very real.
REHMExactly. Somebody could have walked in and arrested...
LEMMONYeah, they feared every time somebody...
LEMMON...knocked on the door. They were fearful.
LEMMONBut she said, no, my community was counting on me and my faith and my family taught me that when your family needs you, you step up. And I could not stop when these women were coming to my door telling me that they really needed the work. I knew it was my responsibility to find a way to provide for them.
REHMIsn't that something. Thanks for calling, Barbara. Here's an e-mail from Lizzy who says, "Your show caught my attention more than usual today. Perhaps because Gayle reminds me of my own love for independent world travel, when I was better able to do so. She deserves respect for being able to find this dressmaker and to capture her story. I can't wait to read about her. Does the book reveal the dressmaker's true identity so as to put her into any danger or is it covered up?"
LEMMONWell, this is a really interesting question, Lizzy. Thank you. She actually is really named Kamila Sidiqi. And I'll tell you, we went back and forth, but the truth is she worked very hard to stay within the Taliban's rules. And she really did follow the rules as closely as she could during those very difficult years. And, in fact, there were Talibs who sent their daughters to work with Kamila. And one young woman who worked with Kamila said, you know, my father is with the Taliban. And he has told me to tell you that as long as you stay within the rules, never talk to men, never have strangers, never allow too many women to be here at once, never be laughing on the street, never take off your burqa.
LEMMONAll these things which Kamila did every day, very strictly because she believed that she had to live under these rules, and she did not want any problems with the Taliban. Then this young woman said, as long you do all that, my father will do his best to keep you safe.
REHMWow. And Gayle, we've got to talk about you. You are here two weeks after you've given birth to a little baby boy.
LEMMONI am. I am. He's really wonderful.
REHMTalk about what you've been through in these last few months.
LEMMONThe last few months have been just incredible because, you know, I was in Afghanistan when I found out that I was pregnant. And I came back in to finish the reporting and finish the research. And I really feel strongly -- Kamila, also, just had a little baby, her second.
LEMMONA little girl. And I feel like, in some ways, I have grown up with this book. So many people told me that, you know, there would be no audience for this book or that, you know, women would necessarily respond. What I found is that people understand how universal this story is. Everyone has an aunt or a grandmother or a mother who sacrificed for them and who took risks for them. And who really made it work, even when all the obstacles were stacked against them. And, I think, that's what this story is to me. And that's why I've been so delighted to read -- read a lot of reader e-mails and to you on a program like this today talking to Barbara and Lizzy, you know, because I really think women understand just how impossible things can be. And that you always have to find a way.
REHMAnd, of course, your husband was here when you found out you were pregnant there. You couldn't even believe you were pregnant.
LEMMONNo, and as -- I really thought I had a parasite because for those of you who travel in tough parts of the world, you know that it's very easy to actually end up with a parasite. And it's happened to me almost every time I have traveled to difficult parts of the world. And so I just didn't feel well. And I couldn't figure out what it was and then, finally, this doctor in New Hampshire -- The World Clinic, which has been terrific, said to me, you need to find out if you're pregnant. I said, what? You know, it can't be. And, of course, you know, thank goodness and thank God it was.
REHMAnd that baby boy is healthy and happily at home.
LEMMONHe is. He's wonderful.
REHMAll right. And here is a question from Randall in Eau Claire, Mich., who says, "Do you have any news of Sarah Chayes, the NPR -- former NPR commentator? She was operating a woman's co-operative in Kandahar in the heart of Taliban country.
LEMMONI do know her through friends. Afghanistan is very small and, particularly, among reporters, it's particularly small. And I know of her terrific work in the south of Afghanistan, which she, I believe, started a soap business -- a co-operative that created jobs in the south fairly recently.
REHMAnd is she still there?
LEMMONI am actually not certain.
LEMMONThe last I knew she was and then was also, I think, was working with NATO at ISOP, but I'm not certain that she still is.
REHMHer father, Abe Chayes, was the legal advisor to the State Department when my husband was there at State. Let's go to Gainesville, Fla., good morning, Keith.
KEITHGood morning. My wife is a gifted seamstress, has a degree in textile science and interior design. We have decades of accumulated patterns and, obviously, can't use them all - hundreds of them. And my question is, is there a need in Afghanistan for patterns and a mechanism to get them there?
REHMWhat a lovely and generous thought.
LEMMONI think that's a great question, Keith. There is definitely a need for them. But what is funny is -- as I've been struck by was how many women sew without patterns because they are so used to it. And during conflict years, you know, sort of the last thing you could find was actually, you know, a pattern, a McCall's pattern, or something like that.
LEMMONBut I would definitely -- I can take your information and certainly get back to you and see if there's a place that could use them.
REHMIf we could put Keith on hold and then get an address where we can -- where Gayle could, perhaps, get in touch with you, Keith. If you'll just hold on, we'll try to get that information for you. All right. Let's go to Jo Ellen in Waterford, Va., good morning.
JO ELLENGood morning. I wanted to share my experience in the Peace Corps almost 50 years ago. I taught dressmaking in a village in Panama to three different communities. I would ride my horse out to these different communities.
ELLENAnd, of course, we had treadle machines because there was no electricity. And the girls that I taught were mostly between 13 and 16 years old and they learned, like you said, patternmaking. I was one step ahead of them but, you know, we all learned together kind of how to make patterns. And the fabric that we used was interesting because we got used parachutes from the army and we would use that fabric. And it turned out to be quite the stylish. You'd be surprised. But I went back last year to visit my community and, of course, all these young women are old ladies now, but many of them remembered sewing with me. They all remembered me. I was called Josephina and it was just a great experience.
ELLENAnd I still sew because I -- you know, I was learning along with them. But I gained a lot of skills that way.
REHMThat's terrific. What a wonderful memory. Thanks for sharing, Jo Ellen. And let's see, Jim in McLean, Va., is asking will any of the proceeds from the book go to Kamila?
LEMMONYes, they will, most definitely. I mean, for me, bringing this story to life was a joy and a privilege and, you know, I wanted to -- she shared her story with me and we are certainly going to share everything that comes next.
REHMThat's terrific. Thanks for asking that. Let's go to Indianapolis. Good morning, Debra.
DEBRAGood morning. I am -- Gayle, I think, you've just done a lot here to revive interest in the Afghan people. I think -- I cannot wait to go out and read your book. And I -- what, I think, that is sort of critical here is that you put a face, again, back on the Afghan people, back on the Afghan women. I mean, you know, this woman sounds like she embodies, sort of, the spirit of Americans. And I just think that with the waning interest and the fatigue over our presence in Afghanistan that this is just going to, hopefully, renew an additional commitment to the people of Afghanistan. You've just sort of now given them a face and an individual that we can relate to and we can be inspired by.
DEBRASo I just thank you so much for your book and can't wait to go out there and buy it and I hope it becomes a best seller.
LEMMONDebra, thank you. And it will be readers like you who help make it so. So I very much appreciate it. What you say is so important – is my hope is that this story changes the conversation because so much of the coverage is dominated by the stories of men who go to war. People forget about the women who pull families through every day such impossible times. And, I think, when you look at the poll numbers two thirds of Americans worried about this war and feeling very concerned about this war. I think so much of it is people don't every understand who actually are the people on the ground who are benefiting and who are, you know, doing their best to fight every day for a better future for their families.
LEMMONAnd so I do hope a story like this is an anecdote to some of the apathy that we see about the Afghan war.
REHMAnd the title of the book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana;" the author is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Al in Dunedin, Fla. Good morning, sir.
ALGood morning, Diane. I'm so excited to hear what this lady has written about. We're a sewing ministry called Threads of Hope and been 15 years doing similar things to empower women around the world by teaching them a trade to learn to sew and to earn a living. And one sewing machine will, as we have learned through our efforts, will feed a family. And it's just wonderful that this book has been written to bring a light -- the need to empower women around the world. It's really an eye opener. So...
LEMMONThank you so much, Al. I mean I think that the hope is the emphasis I really want people to take away from this, you know.
LEMMONOut of real desperation, these girls created hope and community in the same way that women do every day around the world.
REHMDid you get to talk with any of the other women who had participated in her effort?
LEMMONI did. I spent a lot of time interviewing young women who had, certainly, never met a foreigner and never been interviewed. And it was actually really difficult because you were sort of sitting down with them trying to build trust at the same time you were asking them tell me about five and half years of the most difficult that you've ever lived through. So, I think, for me, as a reporter, you're so trained to have a remove from the stories that you write because you have to, but it was sometimes very hard.
LEMMONYou know, when young women would talk about five and a half years of education that they lost and how that changed their lives -- sometimes young women would cry throughout the interviews and you would really do your best to tell them, look, I promise you I will take this seriously. And my responsibility is to share your story with the world.
LEMMONAnd, at the same time, they remembered with such fondness the afternoons they spent at Kamila's house. And one young girl was the youngest of nine in her own family and she said, I was the youngest so I could disappear for afternoons without anyone noticing. And I would always go to Kamila's house to work because that was the most fun place to be.
REHMHere's an e-mail that's sort of reflective of many that have come through. "Please ask your guest why women are treated so badly by the Taliban and others in some Muslim countries."
LEMMONThis is a really interesting question to answer because, you know, I think, from the Taliban's view, in some ways what they are doing is just consistent with the way they grew up. And we talk about this in the early part of the book. So many of these young men were families of mothers and fathers who were displaced by the Soviet war, and they grew up and educated only around young men. The women in the refugee camps that they grew up with were kept indoors for security reasons so they never really saw them. And so they were trained in a kind of not really Afghan brand of Islam. They were trained to think that women should be indoors, should not be in the public sphere and that that was their place.
LEMMONBut what, I think, this book also shows is that so many of the Taliban who were in Kabul actually supported this business because they were men who simply needed to earn a living the same way the girls who sewed with Kamila did. So I also hope that this book shows that there is more -- they were not the monolithic force that people, I think, outside Afghanistan thought of the Taliban as being.
REHMSo there is a sense of humanity going through this book.
LEMMONThere is. And, you know, I think that, you know, there are so many different views of the Taliban and what they meant for that period that showing it through these young women's eyes was my way of reconciling a lot of what I had heard throughout the five years of reporting on this.
REHMWell, congratulations on that reporting and on this book. I know people will enjoy it.
LEMMONThank you so much.
REHMIt's titled, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana" and the author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is drshow.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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