The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: One Story that Stands for Many Others

The acclaimed story of Kamila Sadiqi’s thriving dress business in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s repressive and demoralizing rule has touched hearts on a global scale. Kamila’s account, told by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, is an endearing portrayal of a woman who, led by her faith, felt it was her duty to help her family as well as her whole community. Encouraged by her father who stressed that the “pen is mightier than the sword,” Kamila used her education as a means of survival. She recognized that entrepreneurship was a powerful tool because of its ability to assist people—and she put it to use by employing over 100 people from her neighborhood. Kamila’s story is reminiscent of many other women in Afghanistan who, despite their constraints, have worked hard to assist their societies during periods of despair and hardship. Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani and Sakena Yacoobi, similarly serve as models of dedicated Afghani women who have used their education for their greater good.

While the Taliban High Court issued edicts that regulated the everyday lives of women, banishing them from Afghani society, these three remarkable women have risked their lives to help transform their country. Sakena founded the Afghan Institute for Learning in 1995 based on two core beliefs: the importance of grassroots movements that involve the entire community, and of education in building a just, peaceful, and equitable society. Since its inception, the organization has taught over 8,500 female Afghan teachers and serves 350,000 women and children annually in cities throughout Afghanistan. The organization offers literacy courses as well as practical training courses in sewing, embroidery, rug weaving, health education, counseling, English, information technology, leadership and human rights. For more than twenty years, Sakena Yacoobi has risked her life to teach women and children in Afghanistan. In the face of a brutally oppressive Taliban regime, she secretly used education to reclaim Islam—believing that if people had access to the verses of the Qur’an themselves, they would see its underlying messages of peace, justice, and equality.
In her youth Kamila Sidiqi similarly found a way to remove herself from the Taliban’s rigid idea of Islam. Her and her sisters began a neighborhood book swap at their home, where girls from Khair Khana would stop by to exchange books they had read for new ones. Among Kamila’s favorites were famous Persian poets whose verses defined the mystical Sufi Islamic tradition and chronicled human loss that sought comfort in God’s divine love.
In light of her family’s desperate situation, Kamila eventually decided to come up with a plan that would allow her to earn money while staying within the Taliban’s rules. Guided by her father’s words of wisdom and her religious beliefs, she was committed to fulfilling her duty to support as many people as she could. Her work would help her family, which is a sacred obligation of Islam. Kamila’s store offered a sense of community and life to women in Afghani society; it became a place where women gathered at a time when they were secluded from the public sphere. They would often talk about subject such as film and family, which gave them a sense that they were in the struggle together.
Jamila Afghani also recognized the power of education while working in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan where she taught Qur’anic education classes.  After the fall of the Taliban, Jamila moved back to Afghanistan and founded the Noor Educational Centre (NEC) in Western Kabul. NEC serves women, youth, and children with literacy and health education and offers additional courses in English, library and other skills. NEC’s work has been transformative, to the extent that the mother of one Jamila’s students told her that, “Before I was praying to Allah to give me sons, but now I wish all of my sons were daughters and that my daughters were all like Jamila.”
Furthermore, in collaboration with Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, Jamila created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul and the surrounding areas. The training helps imams understand what the Qur’an says about women and how to discuss gender issues with their congregations. The program represents a stride forward in bringing women back into the open in Afghanistan and challenging the Taliban as an Islamic authority.
Jamila prevailed over societal and familial opposition to become trained in international relations, Sharia law and Islamic education. She uses her knowledge to educate and mobilize women to bring their concerns and their capacity to make a difference to the attention of local, national and international audiences. As she told the UN Security Council, “Women must be consulted in peace negotiations and peacebuilding…Tap our networks that reach and assist women and their families. Women must be included to ensure peace and lasting security.”
The stories of these remarkable women connect people to the more familiar stories of soldiers and insurgents. The far-reaching and extraordinary work Jamila, Sakena and Kamila have done should be remembered by the international community throughout peace talks; women should be involved from the very beginning. It reminds us, as Ms. Lemmon emphasized in a recent Council on Foreign Relations conversation, that women don’t feel they are victims; they think about the people who are counting on them first. As a recent report from UN Women argues, peace agreements and reconstruction work better when women are involved in the building process. The inclusion of women not only improves the quality of the agreements reached, but also heightens their chance of implementation. Recognizing the capacity and power women have is essential to rebuilding a lasting peace for the future.
Nastasia Bach, Religion and Conflict Resolution Intern