The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of Harper Books! Read on for more information.

The plight of women in Afgnanistan became international news fodder in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Suddenly, there they were on everyone’s television screens: oppressed women forced to cover themselves from head to toe under the fundamentalist Taliban regime. They had no power to make any kind of decisions, were not allowed to work or go to school, and were subject to the cruel whims of the men around them.

At least, that’s the mainstream media narrative.

Yes, it is true that once the Taliban took control–several years before 9/11, might I add–men and women were forced to live under fundamentalist laws. Women were impacted the hardest: almost overnight, they were forced to radically alter their clothing, put their educations on hold, and stay at home. The only time they were allowed out in public was when they were being escorted by a male relative (and that, too, could prove perilous). Since they were not allowed to work outside the home–and since previous wars had turned many women into widows–women took the brunt of the economic fallout.

What the mainstream media narrative lacked (as always) was nuance; in their reports on the “War on Terror,” rarely did the media portray any type of agency among the people of Afghanistan. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana serves to rectify some of that.

Kamela Sediqi was a young woman living in Kabul with her parents, two brothers, and five sisters when the Taliban took over. Her father was a firm believer in education, and Kamela and her older sister had degrees. Of course, once sharia law was instituted, the women were forced to stay home. Not only did it drive the girls stir crazy, but it left them all in a precarious financial state.

Due to her father’s work with the previous governing body, Kamela’s parents fled Kabul to escape possible repercussions. Her brother soon fled as well. Though everyone urged the father to get the girls out of Kabul, he refused because of the dangers it posed; the girls would be too vulnerable to attacks and kidnappings. It was decided that the girls would stay at the Kabul home, with Kamela in charge.

Knowing the impossibility of working in public, Kamela began to brainstorm possible businesses that she could run from their home. She decided that sewing would bring in the steadiest income, but she had one problem: she didn’t know how to sew, and neither did her younger sisters. Luckily, her older sister, Malekheh, was an expert tailor who had learned the skill from their mother, and her four younger sisters quickly learned the skill under her tutelage.

With Kamela’s resourcefulness, the girls’ business quickly flourished; they soon realized that they would have to hire other women to help keep up with all of the orders they were received. Kamela was glad that she would be able to help a few other women earn a living, but was still troubled by the plight of the majority of women living under Taliban rule. She came up with an idea to open a school so that they’d be able to train women to develop a skill that would help them earn a living. Though it was extremely dangerous since women were not supposed to work outside the home, Kamela was determined to help as many people as possible.

I was eager to read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, but when I first started the book, I’d only intended to leisurely read a chapter or two at a time. That didn’t happen: I ended up reading about half the book in one sitting and only put it down because I forced myself. The following day, I finished it during my second sitting.

As I read, I was constantly in awe of Kamela’s spirited determination. She’s not much older than me, but I can’t imagine accomplishing half of what she did under her extreme circumstances. What’s more, I love that the book showed just how wrong the “men=bad, women=oppressed” trope is. Before the Taliban took over, people in Afghanistan enjoyed many of the freedoms that Western cultures enjoy. After the Taliban instituted sharia law, women in public were at the mercy of their male relatives, but it wasn’t as if the men suddenly became evil and controlling; plenty of men hated the new Taliban rules as well. Kamela’s younger brother, as the only male in the household, did his best to help his sisters. Strangers in the street often lied and said their were the relatives of women who had no male relative to escort them in public. There wasn’t much either gender could do to protest the Taliban, but a lot of people–female and male–helped each other when they could.

I think it’s fantastic that Kamela’s story gets to be shared with the world. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is truly inspiring, and it makes me so happy to know that activists/entrepreneurs like Kamela exist in the face of danger and adversity.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana was released on March 15, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Want a chance to read this book? Harper Books has provided a finished copy for a Women’s History Month giveaway! To enter, fill out this form by Friday, March 25, 2011. Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only. This giveaway is now closed.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon
I read it as a(n): paperback
publisher review copy 

6 thoughts on “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

  1. This must be a good book if you read it in two sittings; I’ve just entered the give-away! It is so important for women to empower themselves — I hate it when governments make it dangerous for them to do so.

  2. Thank you so much for your review of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” This book celebrates the unsung heroines and the unlikely entrepreneurs who pull families through impossible times every day, all around the world, often without anyone paying attention. I sincerely appreciate your help in spreading the word to readers about a book which I hope helps to change the way we see women in the world. Warm regards,
    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

  3. I am so GLAD that there authors and publishers out there who are willing to give us a perspective that is entirely different from the popular, and vastly one-dimensional, view of the women of countries like Afghanistan, Iran etc.

    There are so many industrious and hard-working women out there who are living and blossoming regardless of the perilous times. What makes them heroes is not mere survival, but that they take what life throws at them, and elevate themselves above it. Mothers, sisters, entrepreneurs – these women are worthy of admiration. Which is why I am so glad you are hosting this giveaway – I am really looking forward to reading this book!


  4. I am so disheartened by popular media’s representation of Islam and Islamic countries–this books sounds like a great antidote.
    Reaffirms my belief that BOOKS OFFER A SOLUTION TO EVERYTHING!

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