In Kabul, A 'Dressmaker' Sows Entrepreneurial Seeds Kamila Sidiqi braved Taliban restrictions and an oppressive environment to open a dressmaking shop in her home, eventually employing over 100 women. Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon wrote about Sidiqi's business and social venture in her book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana..
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In Kabul, A 'Dressmaker' Sows Entrepreneurial Seeds

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In Kabul, A 'Dressmaker' Sows Entrepreneurial Seeds

In Kabul, A 'Dressmaker' Sows Entrepreneurial Seeds

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, women's lives changed overnight.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: 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: Tell us about her first sale and what that meant to her.

TZEMACH LEMMON: 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.

TZEMACH LEMMON: 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?

TZEMACH LEMMON: 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.

TZEMACH 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?

TZEMACH 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?

TZEMACH 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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