Stories behind the burqa

In 2005, journalist Gayle Lemmon went to Afghanistan on assignment for The Financial Times to write about women entrepreneurs. When she met a dressmaker named Kamila Sediqi, Lemmon knew she had a story.

In 2005, journalist Gayle Lemmon went to Afghanistan on assignment for The Financial Times to write about women entrepreneurs. When she met a dressmaker named Kamila Sediqi, Lemmon knew she had a story.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe is exciting and engrossing, reads like a novel, and is complete with moments of tension and triumph, plus well-researched detail on daily life in Kabul under Taliban rule.

When that regime descended in 1996, it brought fear, violence, and restrictions: women must stay home, may not work, and must wear the chadri –– a cloak, also known as a burqa, that covers the face and body –– in public. After Sediqi’s parents left the city to avoid being pressed into service, or worse, by the Taliban, it fell to her to support the family. 

Her story is both familiar (she came up with an idea, procured clients, hired student workers, and learned as she went) and very different (she couldn’t go anywhere without a male escort, had to use an assumed name with customers due to the threat of being found out and punished, and could fit in work on the sewing machine only when there was electricity.)

Publishers Weekly recently interviewed Lemmon about her research for the book. Here are excerpts  from that interview:

PW:  Kamila started her business in 1996, and has accomplished so much since then. Why do you think her story hasn’t been told before?

 GL:  Throughout the process of pursuing Kamila’s story, everyone thought I was totally insane. They said, “There’s no real story here” and “there are no women entrepreneurs.” Kamila’s story was dismissed because it doesn’t fit with the victim narrative, and because it’s not about men with guns. I really believed in the story, and that there was an audience for it.

PW:  What was it like to be in Afghanistan, in terms of the danger around you and the need for high security?

GL:  I spent most of my time with Afghans, not in the green zone. They’d say, “What are you doing here?” And I’d say, “My job.” But sometimes you’re up a lot of the night thinking about it — people were getting kidnapped, and it was unsettling. I took many precautions, and worked with a phenomenal team without whom I couldn’t do this work.

PW:  You were a producer for ABC News and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Did this project feel like a continuation of what you’d done before — or an entirely different direction?

 GL:  What I learned at journalism school and at ABC — those skills are the same no matter where you are in the world. But the robustness of this story… so few reporters are doing stories like this. In Afghanistan, life is so fragile, who knows what the next week will bring? That fragility really affects the way you’re able to report, and the kind of stories people will tell you.

Please note: Off the Shelf columns are now archived on the Vernon branch page of the Okanagan Regional Library website, www.orl.bc.ca.  Also on this page you will find storytime videos of songs, draw-and-tell and flannel stories from our children’s staff, along with a new film commentary section where selected feature films in the ORL’s collection are regularly profiled.