Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

 

WOMEN TO WATCH

 

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Author, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

 

Eight years after meeting Kamila Sidiqi and two years after telling her extraordinary story in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, journalist and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon talks about how Kamila's journey changed her life and inspired women and entrepreneurs the world over.

 

What inspired The Dressmaker of Khair Khana?

Quite honestly, I was just looking for a great economic story that had appeal and was universal. And then I met this young woman Kamila who was telling me how this was her third business. She said, "Oh, my first was this dressmaking business during the Taliban; it created jobs for all the people in my family and neighborhood."

 

What were you thinking as she said this?

It goes against everything you think about women and war. People usually focus only on the things that happen to them as opposed to the things they make happen. I couldn’t let this story go.

 

What do you recall about meeting Kamila and the women she works with?

I would meet them and I was wearing black pants, black t-shirts, no makeup and a jacket and a head scarf. They were so upset. They thought they were getting someone from Bay Watch.

 

Do you keep in touch with Kamila?

I just visited her in November. She is a successful businesswoman. She’s still running the consultancy. She has two children and a dozen employees. Her next challenge is what happens after the international community leaves Afganistan.

 

 

How has Kamila’s life, and yours, changed since you met?

When we met, neither of us was married or had kids. We joked that both of us just had families who hated our work and just wanted us to get married. Which is funny because we are in diametrically opposed worlds.

 

How have people reacted personally to her story?

It’s a story about what you do when your back is up against the wall. That resilience is what moved people. People in this country have written me to say, “If these girls managed to do this, then I can’t complain about my economic problems.” They were saying, “This is my story.” That surprised me and moved me.

 

What did you learn from this?

That we are each capable of much more than we know. That you can face your challenges and business has the power to change lives. That earning an income earns respect. Women can’t be both half the population and a special interest group. Women can do a whole lot for themselves.

 

How do you hope this changes things for women entrepreneurs?

Women don’t get the limelight that they deserve. So many people see them as victims and that trumps everything. Reshaping that is so important. Women are getting on with it and doing what they have to for the family. And they don’t receive the attention that I believe they merit.

 

What was the best advice you ever received?

My aunt has a line — when I was telling her, "I can’t do this," she said, "Never import other people's limitations. Just because they can’t do it doesn’t mean you can’t." Do things you fear, precisely because you fear them.

 

Who is the most important woman in your life?

My mother. She was a true role model — she was a single mother who worked two jobs and taught me that poverty of income is not poverty of imagination. The world was full of opportunity for me and she pushed me very hard. And she would say that on the scale of world tragedy ours is not even a three. Refuse to take no because everyone says no; it’s just a question of not listening.