Afghan Women Entrepreneurs

I first traveled to Afghanistan in December 2005 to report on a new phenomenon: A young generation of Afghan women entrepreneurs who had emerged in the years following the Taliban’s fall.

Many people told me these women did not exist. Women worked in microfinance, they told me, not small business. And at first I grew despondent. So many women I met were actually running nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) because in the early days of the post-Taliban period, funding a NGO was far easier than financing a business. After days of dead ends, I worried that I would return home empty-handed.

And then I heard about Kamela Sediqi.

When I met Kamela she was one her third start-up, though she had not even turned 30. Kaweyan, her newest company, taught people—both men and women—about marketing, finance and business. Money is power, she explained to me. And earning an income changes women’s lives. When I asked her how she knew so much about entrepreneurship, Kamela told me she had run an “excellent business” during the Taliban period that had taught her a great deal while also “doing a lot of good” in her community.

I was shocked. How could a woman have become an entrepreneur during the Taliban? Weren’t women barred from the streets and confined as prisoners in their own homes?

My interview with Kamela spurred a five year odyssey of research and reporting that led to the March 15 release of the “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” Against all odds, Kamela and her sisters created a dressmaking business in their living room that grew to support 100 women in their community. Prevented from pursuing their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, and professors, these extraordinary young women did the one thing they could: They became entrepreneurs. “The Dressmaker” tells Kamela’s story and celebrates the ingenuity and perseverance of the women like her, all around the world, who do what they must for the sake of their families.

And Kamela and her sisters were not the only breadwinners in burqas who supported their families at this impossible time. Many women served as doctors, community organizers, NGO staff and teachers. They risked their safety for the sake of their families and they did what they must to support those who depended on them.

Security deteriorated during the years I spent reporting this story. Kidnappings and bombings became regular parts of our days as my colleague Mohamad and I worked to tell this story. But I never thought about giving up on “The Dressmaker” – these young women had worked through difficulties and dangers far greater than those I faced, and it was my job to bring their heroism to the world.

We are so used to seeing women as victims to be pitied rather than survivors to be respected or resources worthy of our investment. We must change this conversation. Then we can change the world. I hope “The Dressmaker” will reshape the way we see women and war. And I hope you will enjoy this book that celebrates the unsung heroines all around us.


Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.