In September 1996, when Kamila Sidiqi was a teenager, the Taliban overtook Kabul. Sidiqi's father and a brother had to flee for political reasons, leaving Sidiqi to care for her family. The Taliban soon forbade women to work outside the home or to attend school, and if a woman did not have a husband, father or brother, she would have to support herself somehow in secret.
To earn money for the family, Sidiqi asked her sister to teach her to sew — and she eventually grew a sewing business out of her home, employing over 100 women from her neighborhood. In a new book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells Sidiqi's story of opening a small business in the midst of civil war and an atmosphere of repression.
The peril of making her first sale made clear the danger Sidiqi would be braving. She and her brother (acting as her chaperone) tried to take a main road to a shop in one of Kabul's markets but encountered Taliban-manned checkpoints all along the way. She finally got to the store by weaving through back roads instead, and showed the shopkeeper her wares.
Pleased with what he saw, the shopkeeper noted how difficult it now was to import affordable goods from Pakistan. He requested several more items and asked if she could also make pantsuits for his shop.
"She had no idea how to make them, but she said, 'Yes, yes, we'll be happy to make them for you,' " Lemmon tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition. "And he was probably the first bit of hope she had had in months."
Sidiqi soon had dozens of women working for her making clothes; she grew so successful that she was asked — unknowingly — to make dresses for a Taliban wedding. A woman rushed into Sidiqi's house and said she needed two gowns in 24 hours. Noticing how many women sat in Sidiqi's house to sew, the woman upped her order to six gowns.
"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 ... takes out the gowns to the car and realizes 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," Lemmon says.
From the outside, the years under Taliban rule seemed overwhelmingly oppressive for women. But negotiations within their communities allowed life to happen during that time. Many women navigated the rules during the civil war to get permission to keep a small business going, or to have their male family members sell the goods they'd make.
And some members of the Taliban were just members of the community who needed to earn a living, Lemmon says. Because they too needed money, their daughters sometimes went to work for Sidiqi as dressmakers.
The country's isolation — caused by the Taliban's closure of trade and road blockades — created a unique market opportunity, Lemmon says: "Women do what women do in war ... they find a way to pull families through."
Today, Sidiqi runs a business consultancy called Kaweyan, which teaches entrepreneurship skills to Afghans around the country. It's her third business, and she says she realized how good she had become in the field because of the difficulties she faced and the opportunities she unearthed for herself during the Taliban years.
She began the project of supporting her family and her community through sewing when she was barely 20 years old herself — a fact her father told Lemmon he greatly appreciates.
"Her father said to me: 'First God, then I, then Kamila cared for our family, and made sure that we were provided for. ... I'm so happy someone is telling this story, because she was so brave at such an impossible time.' "