Teen Girl Takes On the Taliban and Wins

Jeanne Sager

Dressmaker of Khair KhanaIf the state of America's youth has begun to depress you, whip out your eReaders. The story of Kamila Sidiqi, teenage entrepreneur who started her own small business while living under the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will restore your faith in the future. Just 19, a fresh graduate of a teaching certificate program, Sidiqi is the subject of the new book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. After you read it, you'll be passing it to your kid.

It's the tale of a teenage girl forced to make money to feed her siblings because her father and older brother had been driven away from Kabul by the threat of the Taliban. It's the story of a teen girl who beats the restrictive Afghani regime, who wins for her family. But it's more than that. 

In Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's powerful re-telling of the teenager's story is the sense that youth can still conquer all. As Lemmon joked with The Stir, "I asked her if she had it to do again, would she, and she said, 'I was kind of young and dumb, and I didn't know any better.'" Like Lemmon, the older, wiser Sidiqi (she's now 34) is joking ... sort of.

But this is a girl who refused to quit high school and later training to be a teacher even during the Afghani civil war, when many families kept their daughters home from school to protect them from rocket blasts and the very real threat of being kidnapped. She was 19 when the Taliban arrived and forced all women out of work and into their homes, shrouding them in restrictive burqas. And at 19, she found a way to feed not only her family but hundreds in Kabul by starting a business that gave work to her female neighbors as seamstresses. The book follows her as she thwarts Taliban rules about women and men fraternizing to make her business deals, as she becomes the head of a business empire that services several tailors in Kabul and pays for the lifestyles of her siblings and aging parents. This even though Sidiqi couldn't legally leave her own house without the escort of her 13-year-old brother to protect her "honor."

It's a story Lemmon is telling because she sees the same potential for idealism in teen girls in any place, any century. "It could have been women in the US in the Civil War, could have have been women in the UK during World War II," she pointed out. "It's not as uncommon as you think, it's what young women do every day, but nobody ever talks about it."

Hence Lemmon's goal was to tell a story that you don't hear. "Almost no one puts entrepreneur, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and women in the same sentence." But it's also to inspire women, to tell teenage girls they can be the force that affects change in the world, no matter how cliched it may be. As the deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lemmon says one of her favorite reactions to Kamila Sidiqi's true story comes from dads who assure her they will be handing the book over to their daughters to read.

So get the kids off Facebook. Tell them to put down their iPhones. If a teen girl living under the Taliban can start a business empire, there's hope for them yet.

Did this story give you a much-needed boost today?


Image via Gayle Lemmon

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