from Women and Foreign Policy Program

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

As the United States prepares to start its drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, many experts argue that civil society and infrastructure must be strengthened to stabilize the war-torn country. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), writes that "war reshapes women's lives and often unexpectedly forces them—unprepared—into the role of breadwinner." She chronicles a community of Afghan women who created an entrepreneurial network, which has become a model for economic development.

While traveling as a journalist in Afghanistan in 2005, Lemmon met twenty-eight-year-old Kamila Sidiqi, whose tailoring business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood, Khair Khana, a northern suburb of Kabul. Prohibited under Taliban rule from working, Sidiqi began secretly making dresses in her living room to support her five brothers and sisters. As demand for her work grew, she employed over a hundred women.

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Through this narrative, Lemmon underscores the integral role of women in the economic development and social progress of Afghanistan. "Money is power for women," Lemmon quotes Sidiqi. "If women have their own income to bring to the family, they can contribute and make decisions. Their brothers, their husbands, and their entire families will have respect for them. I've seen this again and again. It's so important in Afghanistan because women have always had to ask for money from men. If we can give them some training, and an ability to earn a good salary, then we can change their lives and help their families," Sidiqi says.

Lemmon explains: "We are far more accustomed to seeing Afghan women as victims to be pitied rather than survivors to be respected. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana demonstrates once again the resilience Afghan women have shown in pulling communities through conflict, and that women are among the most reliable allies the United States has in the fight to create a stable, safe, and secure Afghanistan for the future."

Read the introduction and first chapter [PDF] of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

Visit the book's Facebook page.

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Reviews and Endorsements

Reading about this group of women, who refused to give in to an oppressive regime but worked with the constant fear of being discovered, one cannot help but be inspired.

Jakarta Globe

This novel is unique in that it calls attention to the generally ignored heroic actions of women whose everyday lives are a fight for survival.

Issaquah Press

Kamila's story is a truly inspiring one and a testament to the ingenuity and resiliency of the human spirit.

Burda Style

A captivating war-time adventure story [and] a lesson in tenacity and courage.

Acton Institute Power Blog

A most remarkable tale. It is sure to give perspective on how close people can come to defeat and still pull themselves and everyone around them up to make their lives better.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Lemmon's storytelling is her strength–the way the book is organized is captivating ... make no mistake that The Dressmaker of Khair Khana has solid journalistic chops and remains based in fact ... a feel-good, pleasurable read at the crossroads between journalism and novel.

Muslimah Media Watch blog

By sharing these women's courageously tenacious stories, Lemmon provides readers convincing proof to believe, as well.

Book Dragon blog


Taunton Daily Gazette

Definitely a must-read!

Heart-wrenching [and] heartwarming.

Washington Times

Awe-inspiring . . . powerful and humbling.

Parade magazine

One of those books you pick up to read and never forget.

Expect to see Dressmaker on beaches everywhere this summer. And on smart summer reading lists, right next to Three Cups of Tea. In a time when women's freedom is challenged and threatened--and not just in Kabul--Kamila's fist-pump of victory is as necessary as it is inspiring.

A riveting and important book.

Fast Company

Pure inspiration.

LA Times

[A] transporting, enlightening book . . . a fascinating window on Afghan life under the Taliban and a celebration of women the world over who support their loved ones with tenacity, inventiveness and sheer guts.

People magazine, People Pick 4-star review

A truly uplifting true story . . . a book to be shared across genders and generations.

Huffington Post


O magazine, Top Ten Books to Pick Up Now

An engaging nonfiction look at the lives of women living under the Taliban. . . . Teens will be amazed by the courage and determination of Kamela Sediqi, the subject of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. Lemmon does an outstanding job of conveying the powerful sisterhood of Sidiqi's team as well as the women's incredible passion for work in the midst of unspeakable brutality and danger. Understanding that Sidiqi has known nothing but war her entire life, this inspiring and powerful story of hope and resiliency will make a lasting impression on the reader.

School Library Journal

The glimpse into this hidden world of women under the Taliban is so valuable. . . . And it is because the story is so seldom told that The Dressmaker of Khair Khana verges on required reading. At the very least, it is an important reminder of the power of the public eye. Regardless of how heroic they are, women behind closed doors seldom appear in the news or recorded history. It can be easy to forget that they even exist.

Christian Science Monitor

The book is backed by a perfect blend of publishing elements—a remarkable Afghan heroine, a high-profile writer, bookseller support and a marketing campaign with a celebrity roster.

USA Today

[A] remarkable story of an ingenious young Afghan woman who, under the Taliban's rule, created jobs for 100 women.

Vanity Fair

An exciting, engrossing [story] that reads like a novel, complete with moments of tension and triumph, plus well-researched detail on daily life in Kabul under Taliban rule . . . It's a fascinating story that touches on family, gender, business, and politics and offers inspiration through the resourceful, determined woman at its heart.

Publishers Weekly, Pick of the Week

A true, inspiring story of courageous women and quiet heroism at work in Taliban-era Afghanistan.

Christian Science Monitor

An inspiring, uplifting story about one woman's extraordinary courage and ingenuity in the face of adversity.


An inspiring story of courageous community building. ... The product of several years of in-depth interviewing ... [Lemmon] pays scrupulous attention to detail ... [and] convincingly evokes the atmosphere of Taliban-era Kabul.

Kirkus Reviews

Kamila Sidiqi's unforgettable story shows just how far we are willing to go for those we love, and proves once again the power of girls to remake our world. This is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana gives voice to many of our world's unsung heroines. Against all odds, these young women created hope and community, and they never gave up. This book is guaranteed to move you—and to show you a side of Afghanistan few ever see.

Angelina Jolie, UN goodwill ambassador

Books on Afghanistan usually fall into one of two categories: policy oriented polemics, or simple tales about do-gooders. Rarely has an author been so successful in turning on-the-ground reportage into a dramatic and yet deeply informative story. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads like great fiction and yet it is all true; this book will grab you from the first sentence and take you on an amazing journey that crosses many borders: cultural, geographical, intellectual and, most importantly, emotional. It is a must read.

Mohamed El-Erian, author of When Markets Collide

Gayle Lemmon's riveting portrait of Kamila, told with grace, elegance and passion, captures the extraordinary tenacity and ingenuity of one woman who quietly triumphed under the Taliban for the sake of her family. A powerful read that serves as a reminder that Afghanistan can never thrive until it embraces the active involvement of women—with their resourcefulness, spirit and resilience—in its leadership and future.

Tina Brown, editor in chief, the Daily Beast   

In the News

Afghan Home-Grown Entrepreneurs

HarperCollins Afghanistan's Enterprising Women


Life for Afghan Women Under Taliban Rule


NYT: Three New Books Highlight Female Entrepreneurship


Gayle Lemmon on Utah Public Radio


NY Mag: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon Doesn't Notice Whether Vegan Food Is Warm or Cold


Gayle Lemmon on Wisconsin Public Radio


Harper's Bazaar: How fashion saved my family from the Taliban


Gayle Lemmon on Bloomberg Radio


PBS NewsHour: Afghan Dressmaker Helps Inspire Other Start-Ups


Gayle Lemmon on Tavis Smiley


Daily Beast: When Everything Changed


Gayle Lemmon on Andrea Mitchell Reports


Yahoo: Celebrating the strength of women in Afghanistan


Gayle Lemmon on Morning Joe


Against All Odds: PW Talks with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon


Gayle Lemmon on the Diane Rehm Show


Women in Public Affairs Interview with Gayle Lemmon


Gayle Lemmon on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show


Gayle Lemmon on NPR's Morning Edition


Gayle Lemmon on Marketplace Radio


Gayle Lemmon on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show


Atlantic: Good Book Reviews Are No Longer Enough


Women's Wear Daily: Sewing Persistence in the Taliban Era


CNN: Why think small when it comes to women in poor nations?


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