Poverty is inevitable in a war zone, right? One’s movements are restricted, buildings and businesses are damaged, people flee. Add to that random acts of violence brought by the Taliban and the already damaged economy of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and poverty seems unavoidable.
Never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe, journalist and Harvard Business School student Gayle Tzemach Lemmon sets off in search women who are able to start and sustain businesses in the most harrowing of times: war.
In Kabul, Lemmon meets Kamila Sidiqi, one of eleven siblings who must find a way to support her family during the years of Taliban rule. With her father having to flee the city and her mother in poor health, it falls on her shoulders to make sure she and her siblings eat and stay safe. She decides to learn sewing from her eldest sister and literally turns the family home into a design-studio, production line and warehouse. She seeks out clients, develops new lines of clothing and makes good on delivery dates. In other words, she creates a successful business.
But Kamila Sidiqi is not satisfied with merely keeping her own family safe and sound. As a Muslim, she believes it is her duty to help those less fortunate. She begins to train and hire neighborhood women to sew and do the detailed embroidery and beading work that her business requires. Her hope is to not only grow her own business, but teach skills to women so that they, too, can start their own businesses.
Eventually, Sidiqi is approached by the Women’s Community Forum, an NGO that teaches and trains women in business. Sidiqi is asked to become a leader, to travel and give workshops to other Afghani women trying to start businesses. If trying to keep a business going in war-torn Kabul is not frightening enough, traveling with the Women’s Community Forum is absolutely terrifying. In fact, one of Sidiqi’s sisters tries desperately to take Kamila out of taking this role, fearing for her life (with good reason). Sidiqi plunges ahead, believing again it is her duty to help as many people as she can escape poverty.
By the 2005, with the Taliban out of power, Sidiqi has started another business, “Kaweyan” (after a prosperous Iranian dynasty), that seeks to train aspiring business owners in skills such as writing business plans, budgeting, and utilizing interns in Afghanistan and several other countries. Her goal at that time was to create mobile teams that were able to visit and teach those in remote areas.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a captivating war-time adventure story, but it is also a lesson in tenacity and courage. What will it take to overcome poverty? One person, with a great business idea, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make that idea a reality.