Celebrating Afghan businesswomen

Article Date

03 July 2011

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

I first met Kamila Sidiqi in December 2005, on a cold Kabul afternoon. After speaking with her for 15 minutes, I knew I had a story I had to tell.

I was in Afghanistan to write about women entrepreneurs running small and growing businesses, and I was desperate to find a businesswoman who could tell me why entrepreneurship mattered. So many women I had met on my trip were actually running nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), because in the early days of the post-Taliban period, it was much easier to get funding to start an aid organization than it ever was to find the funds to start a business. No one wanted to take the risk on capital, but money could be found to seed an NGO.

Sitting in Mercy Corps’ offices sipping black tea, Kamila told me she was already on her third start-up, though she had not even turned 30. Her latest company was a business consultancy called Kaweyan, and at the moment she was its sole employee. She talked to me eloquently about how “money is power for women” because it changes the dynamic in the family when women bring income home. And she told me that she loved doing marketing plans and business plans and intended to help her countrymen learn how to start their own firms.

When I asked her how she knew so much about entrepreneurship, Kamila 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 could not believe it. How in the world could a woman become an entrepreneur under the Taliban, I wondered? Hadn’t women simply lived at home, as virtual prisoners, throughout those years?

That December conversation launched a reporting odyssey that led to “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” which will be published on March 15. “The Dressmaker” tells Kamila’s story and captures both the darkness and the triumphs of the Taliban period for women in Afghanistan. Against all odds, Kamila and her sisters created a dressmaking business in their living room that supported 100 women in their neighborhood. From desperation they created a lifeline that made the difference between survival and starvation for those it touched. These girls wanted to become teachers and doctors and professors, but none of that was possible. So they did the one thing they still could: they started a business.

What I came to learn during the next five years is that Kamila was hardly the only one. Though we are far more used to seeing women, particularly in Afghanistan, as victims to be pitied rather than survivors to be respected, the truth was that many women had become breadwinners during years in which they weren’t even supposed to be on the street. They navigated the laws and the dangers of the Taliban years for the sake of those they loved.

The Dressmaker” celebrates the unsung heroines who pull families through impossible times, all around the world, with no one paying attention to their valor. The women ICRW supports and celebrates every day.