The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: book review

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Publisher: Harper/Harper Collins (2011). Non-fiction. Hardcover, 288 pp.

She was hardly the only young woman in Kabul trying to fill her days. Across the capital, women of all ages and backgrounds were learning to make do in a city run by men who wanted them to disappear.

The plight of oppressed women throughout the world concerns me. Here in the United States women don’t have completely equal rights as men. Women aren’t represented in Congress. Women make less money than men. But it’s unfathomable to consider living in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where women must wear full-length chadris or burkas that cover them completely when they go outside. They must travel with a male escort. Since the 80s, Afghanistan has been at war. First the Soviets invaded, then the Muhajadeen controlled the country, then the Taliban controlled Afghanistan until after 9/11 when the United States invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban regime retreated. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, life became unbearable for women with all the arcane rules. The Taliban use a 14th Century interpretation of the Quran.

During these Taliban years, an entrepreneurial and brave woman named Kamila Sadiqi started a dressmaking business which helped her family as well as other women in her neighborhood. When the Taliban declared that women could no longer go to school, Kamila decided to find something else that would support her family. Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon details the dresses—relatively austere but some with beading and several wedding dresses Kamila needed to learn to sew and then she would travel to the markets and acquire new customers. Once her business got larger, Kamila set up a school, with the help of her sisters. After a few years, a UN group approached Kamila to come teach at some pop-up school for women. She did despite the inherent danger involved. If she were caught by the Taliban her entire family would suffer.

And she wanted to spare her younger sisters and the students the reminder of what they already knew: the world outside their green gate remained full of danger. Poverty, food shortages, and the merciless drought had drained the life out of everyone in the city, including the Taliban’s own soldiers, who patrolled the barren capital in their shalwar kameez with little to protect them against the freezing winter.

While The Dressmaker of Khair Khana introduces the industrious and intelligent Kamila, I desired more conflict. I couldn’t get a feel for just HOW dangerous it was or what risks Kamila took. I wondered why women would buy new dresses under Taliban rule but I suppose they do and they did. How much did families and women make before the Taliban rule? How much did women bring in for their families after? Also what was the cost of living at that time? These are things that would make this story more comprehensive and understandable. Lemmon writes drily and factually and doesn’t include enough emotion.

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