RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, women's lives changed overnight.
Ms. GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON (Author, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana"): It really did become virtual house arrest because the uncertainty meant that everybody kept their girls inside, and then the radio broadcast all these new rules. You know, women cannot be out of the house without a chaperone, women cannot be out of the house without a chador(ph), a burka; women cannot go to school; women cannot be working. And these girls who had been out in the world studying, you know, to helping their families, contributing to their families, found themselves indoors with no place to go.
MONTAGNE: That's journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. On a reporting trip to Kabul several years ago, she met a young woman named Kamila Sidiqi. She had been a teenager when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Kamila Sidiqi's father and older brother were forced to flee and she was forced to support a house full of younger siblings. Though she had dreams of being a teacher, Kamila turned to sewing and became a dressmaker.
In a new book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," Lemmon recounts how Kamila managed to prosper despite the restrictions she faced.
Tell us about her first sale and what that meant to her.
Ms. LEMMON: So this was a day in Kabul. She and her brother, who was her chaperone, they tried to take the main road, but they quickly realized the Talibs were really manning a lot of checkpoints along the way. So they weaved through the back roads and went into the store, showed the first shopkeeper this sample that her sister had helped her to make. And instead of saying outright, oh no, I'll never buy this, the shopkeeper said, you know, it's really hard to get to Pakistan right now, it's really hard to find goods that people can still afford. We'll take several. And in fact, what I'd really like to see was some pantsuits. Can you make those?
She immediately jumped. I mean, she had no idea how to make them. But she said, yes, yes, we'll be happy to make them for you. And he was probably the first bit of hope she had had in months. And she looked at him and said, OK, now we're going to work.
MONTAGNE: Eventually, as you tell the story, Kamila had dozens of women working for her. And the business was so successful that they were asked to make gowns for a Taliban wedding.
Ms. LEMMON: Well, what's funny about that story is that Kamila and her sisters had no idea. This woman rushed in and said we have - we need - in 24 hours we need two gowns. They said OK. Then they looked around and saw how many girls were working at Kamila's house and said wait a minute, we actually need six gowns. And so they're rushing, rushing, trying to get these brides and the mother and the sister all outfitted for this wedding.
And then at the end a young girl who was working with them and Kamila's brother take out the gowns to the car and realize that it's a wedding procession, and not only is it a wedding procession, but it's a wedding procession led by Taliban for a Taliban wedding.
MONTAGNE: This is a very telling story because in fact during those years, from the outside, the Taliban looked monolithic. It was a pretty straightforward oppressive situation. In fact, there were a lot of negotiations that allowed a lot of life to happen during that time. And I'm wondering, you know, in writing this book, how many women really - in your estimation - did in fact work during this time?
Ms. LEMMON: Life became a negotiation for women under the Taliban. And because women do what women do in war, which is they find a way to pull families through, so many women found a way to navigate the rules, where they would either win enough permission to keep whatever small business they had going or they found enough help in terms of the men in their family to sell things that earn them money.
So you had women working around the rules throughout the entirety of the Taliban era, and they never were monolithic. There were always negotiations which could and were being made. And you had Taliban who were just members of the community who needed to earn a living. And some of them, in fact, in the book actually send their daughters to work with Kamila, because they need the money.
MONTAGNE: You know, in my experience as well, Afghanistan is a nation of entrepreneurs. This is a natural for people there, and it would seem women, if they only have a chance. And they oddly had a chance under the Taliban because the nation was so isolated.
Ms. LEMMON: It's interesting. There was a market opportunity in some ways because of the country's isolation. So in some ways you could say that the openings women seized for themselves at an incredibly difficult and oppressive time allowed them to continue growing, even when all the opportunities around them closed.
MONTAGNE: What is Kamila Sidiqi doing today?
Ms. LEMMON: She is an entrepreneur now on her third business. She runs a business consultancy called Kaweyan, which teaches entrepreneurship skills to Afghans all around the country. And you know, she discovered how good she was at business because of all the difficulties and the opportunities she unearthed for herself during the Taliban years.
MONTAGNE: But I also think the wonderful thing about it that she was able to take care of her family through dint of her own drive and creativity about how she did things. Is that still the case?
Ms. LEMMON: She is still a leader in her family. Her father said to me: First God, then I, then Kamila cared for our family and made sure that we were provided for. Both her father and her brother, who was in Iran for most of the time, say, you know, I'm so happy that someone is telling this story because she was so brave at such an impossible time and she made sure all of us were cared for. She made sure all of us were supported. And she was barely 20 herself.
MONTAGNE: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story of Kamila Sidiqi in the new book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." You can read an excerpt at our website, NPR.org.
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