Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Gayle Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Disclaimer: The publisher provided a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

After reading Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea in January I wanted to read more about women’s issues but not so much in the vein of “American traveling abroad and doing great things, changing the world in ways that are never satisfactorily explained, worrying about his weight gain” and more in the vein of women actually doing things for themselves. Gayle Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana was the perfect book to answer my complaints about Mortenson’s book, providing a clear picture of life under the Taliban in Afghanistan and of the ways in which women responded to the Taliban-imposed limits on their lives and sought to support their families.

Lemmon writes an introduction about herself, her trip to Afghanistan and her attempts to seek out a story like the one she eventually writes about in this book, and this is – perhaps oddly – one of my favorite parts of the book. After my nightmare journey through Three Cups of Tea, I was worried Dressmaker would be more of the same, at least so far as a lack of illuminating or smooth writing goes. But Lemmon introduces herself early on as a strong writer, perfectly capturing the feel of landing in a foreign country, feeling uncomfortable in your clothes (in her case, a wool headscarf), and trying to understand the mass of landscape and history in the first moments you see it after leaving an airport.

Where Lemmon is going with this is to introduce us to the manner in which she was introduced to Kamila Sidiqi, the subject of her book. Kamila graduated from teacher training on the day the Taliban entered Kabul, finding her life plans shattered; under Taliban rule women couldn’t work outside their homes, or even exit their homes without a male escort, limiting Kamila and her sisters to their home.

Much of Kamila’s story is about sheer luck, about being in the right place at the right time, though Lemmon never says this. Having heard about women sewing in their homes and selling dresses and pantsuits to local stores, Kamila visits her older sister Malika, an accomplished seamstress, for a crash course in sewing a dress. Despite not knowing how to sew or run a business, Kamila is able to take this sample dress to a store, secure some orders, and teach her sisters how to sew, Malika-style. They make good on their first order, receive a second, expand to sell to other stores, find the least expensive stores to buy their sewing supplies, and grow their business until they can barely find the time to sleep. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of time during this period; at times I found myself surprised by the Context Clues (as my sixth-grade teacher would say) that suggested a few months had passed rather than the few weeks I had thought, but my occasional confusion didn’t do much to impede the narrative flow.

It’s around this point that Kamila expands her business in ways that set it apart from other small businesses run by women at the time. (As Lemmon writes in her introduction, and as is clear from what Kamila says throughout the book, other women were running similar businesses out of their homes.) With neighborhood girls daily visiting the Sidiqi home to request work as seamstresses, Kamila decides to expand her business into a training school of sorts, allowing girls to come in and do an unpaid apprenticeship.

There are so many interesting things to this book, details that we’re able to get to because Lemmon’s writing focuses so closely on local women and their experiences and work. Example: Kamila goes to one tailoring shop and gets orders, then begins to take orders from the brother of the owner of that first tailoring shop – who also owns a tailoring shop. Later, their older brother moves to Kabul and opens his own tailoring shop, and Kamila’s family is able to supply all three brothers. When I lived in the States it never occurred to me that in many countries businesses are run in this fashion, with a family all working in the same field and even with their stores close to one another. It’s how things are done in Macedonia too, though, and it’s fun to see how and why families run their businesses in this fashion.

Lemmon also shows us the huge divide that exists between Taliban members on the street and those in the government. She never tries to oversimplify her subject matter, and though she writes about things like women being hit in the street for a wrist briefly slipping into sight, she also suggests that the street level members of the Taliban support Kamila’s business. At one point some women place last-minute orders for dresses that turn out to be for a Taliban wedding; clearly, the business is known. Lemmon uses this incident to add nuance to the story, and that she refrains from labeling Kamila a hero or every low-level member of the Taliban the opposite is one of the great strengths of Dressmaker.

Lemmon writes Kamila’s story in clean prose; it’s a fairly easy but nuanced glimpse of life under the Taliban and the ways in which one woman and her family undertook, with no outside support, to start a business that eventually supported their family and many members of their neighborhood. If you’re debating reading Three Cups of Tea, I implore you, I beg you, to read Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana instead. It’s a better book because of the quality of writing but also, and especially, because it looks at what women are able to do by themselves, not what women are able to do when a man flies in from another country to do something for them.

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed