The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

Image of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe
Release Date: 
March 14, 2011
Harper Collins
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“What are you doing without your scarf?”

“Where are you coming from?” the Talib shouted. “Who is your mabram? Where is he? Show him to me.”

Such questions are difficult to imagine in the modern 21st century. Yet during 2005 and the four to five years following, a petite Afghani woman and many like her faced this inquiry often. It was more than a verbal bashing; it could mean arrest, beatings or worse. In the midst of this stifling environment, author Gayle Lemmon singles out one woman with particular courage and determination. Her name is Kamila, and this is her story.

This account by reporter/journalist Gayle Lemmon begins with a journey to war-torn Afghanistan, a search for the hidden cottage industries and the entrepreneurs she had heard so much about.

Ms. Lemmon first introduces us to Kamila as a bright young student, fresh from her studies and interested in becoming a teacher. She happily rides the bus and looks out on the community she loves. The scene quickly changes as it often does when the Taliban is present. The bus trips change, too, and transformation of the bus and its travelers reflect the growing oppression and isolation Kamila and her family experience. Suddenly she finds herself and her sisters—indeed her entire family—restricted, constrained, and bored, with the dangers of staying in their home country increasing every day.

Yet out of frustration and overwhelming repression, when it might be easiest to flee, the family begins to cope. Kamila and her sisters begin a book swap to offer a social outlet and at the same time keep their minds working. Their father’s savings support them for a while and they even have a bit of food to share with their neighbors.

But Kamila asks herself often in the dark of night: “What will we do when the money runs out?” Her thoughts keep reverting to “so many widows” and “so many girls” in their homes. How will their country survive? How will they?

Kamila had to come up with a plan, one that would allow her to escape the Taliban’s harsh punishments, yet give her family a chance to survive. It never occurred to her that she might not succeed. As was often the case, Kamila’s older sister, Malika, finally became the catalyst for inspiration; Kamila turned her energies to learning how to sew. She had seen modest but beautiful dresses in the marketplace and vendors to sell them. All she needed to know was to know how to produce these beautiful gowns and how to make the right connections to sell them. But whom could she trust?

From that simple idea grew not only a dressmaking business to bring in a bit of money but also a lifeline for Kamila and her family. Soon the news spread through the grapevine of the neighborhood, and her venture expanded. Still the threat of being “found out” or in any small way displeasing those who ruled the streets was a constant burden. As the war and violence continued around her, Kamila applied her indomitable efforts to her work, but where would it lead her?

Ms. Lemmon’s actual relationship with these chador-clad women and girls who laid aside their fears for the sake of family and friends and country, is often paramount as the story unfolds. At times startling and inspiring, terrifying and heartwarming, the magnitude of this story sometimes cries out for stronger, more descriptive language. Even with that shortcoming, there is no denying the power of this young woman’s example and the celebration this story provides of human determination and spirit.