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In 2004, political journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon left her ABC News post to pursue an MBA at Harvard. During this time Lemmon began researching women in conflict and post-conflict zones who were starting businesses and establishing entrepreneurial roots in their communities and through her research met Kamila Sidiqi. As a teenager in Afghanistan during the brutal Taliban rule, Sidiqi started a sewing and tailoring business in her home which not only helped her family overcome a sudden and oppressive lifestyle change, but also brought a sense of hope back to a community of women who had been mercilessly stripped of their former way of life. Lemmon tells Kamila’s story in a simple, straight forward way that foregoes grandiose drama and instead focuses on the real, everyday struggles of the Sidiqi family and how they used sewing to reestablish themselves during a fearful and challenging time.

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Kamila Sidiqi at her desk. Photo by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

When Kamila Sidiqi was a student in Kabul, training to be a teacher, she never could have anticipated how much her life would change over the next few years. With the Taliban takeover of the capital city of Afghanistan in the late 90’s came a new set of rules and a way of life that would forever alter Kamila’s course and her family’s future.

Under the Taliban’s new rule women were virtually stripped of their rights, forced out of school and work and required to be fully covered by a chadri when in public. Daily life in Kamila’s home city of Khair Khana came to a sudden halt as nearly all of the women were instantly shut away in their homes and Taliban soldiers roamed the streets brutally enforcing their new code of ethics. Life was equally as uneasy for the men of Khair Khana, most of whom fled to neighboring countries to avoid being forced to fight for the Taliban or worse – imprisonment, torture and death. Kamila’s hometown and other villages around Kabul went from bustling, thriving communities to near ghost towns almost overnight. Markets were empty and the streets nearly desolate as a city full of women and children were either completely unable or too afraid to leave their homes.

A few women under Taliban rule were able to find ways to continue life in a relatively normal way. Since new laws now segregated medical care for men and women, female doctors were still in demand. A handful of women ran schools out of their homes, but many were shut down for teaching subjects outside of the approved religious doctrine. Taliban guidelines kept women under a strict code when in public, however they were still free within the walls of their homes. They could laugh, socialize, be rid of their visually restrictive chadri, and carry on a somewhat normal existence. Yet, with no men around to work and unable to work themselves, the women of Afghanistan were growing increasingly desperate. They needed to find a way to help themselves in a country that no longer seemed to acknowledge their existence.

After her father and older brothers fled Khair Khana, Kamila struggled to find a solution to her family’s bleak situation. She knew there was a way to bring money and opportunity to her sisters while staying within the confines of the Taliban’s new laws and she found her solution in one of her older sister’s favorite pastimes, sewing. Kamila and her family members set up a small sewing and tailoring workshop in their living room and with Kamila’s fearless, entrepreneurial spirit and her sisters’ skilled fingers soon built a solid business that brought hope back to the Sidiqi family. As word spread, women were not only turning up at the Sidiqi doorstep looking for a new dress, they were also looking for opportunities. Kamila saw the needs that sewing fulfilled for these women, not just financially but also emotionally and psychologically, and how it brought a sense of dignity and worth back to the downtrodden women around her.

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A beaded floret on a decorative vest, an elaborate Afghan dress made by Kamila and her team of dressmakers. Photos by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

Sporadic access to electricity and unexpected Taliban raids forced the women to work mostly by hand and in secret. Beading intricate wedding dresses, hemming pantsuits and making ensembles sans patterns, the women learned largely from Kamila’s older sister, Malika, and each other. Alongside the thriving business, Kamila established a school where girls could learn to sew and eventually contribute to the business as seamstresses, embroiderers and tailors. In a time of limited means, Kamila was providing opportunities and hope to the many woman who had lost virtually everything in the midst of the Taliban’s rule.

After the September 11th attacks and the American invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban forces abandoned Khair Khana and Kamila and her sisters were finally able to step out of the shadows of their chadri and retake their place in society. While it was the restrictions of the regime that had spawned Kamila’s foray into sewing, the network of support and sense of community she had built through the sewing school and business remained strong within Khair Khana, enabling Kamila to work with non-profit and humanitarian organizations to bring that same spirit to other conflicted and war-torn areas.

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Kamila now works with Mercy Corp helping women to establish businesses in conflict and post-conflict areas, Kamila speaking about the future of Afghanistan at the US Global Leadership Campaign in 2005.

Kamia’s story is a truly inspiring one and a testament to the ingenuity and resiliency of the human spirit. Rather than succumbing to the oppression of the Taliban, Kamila found a way to create sanctuary within the oppression and in turn help the women around her find solace. Sewing is a skill that women around the world and throughout history have used to establish themselves independently. From Mary Brooks Picken, who taught women throughout the United States how to sew through her Women’s Institute courses; to Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin, who took Paris fashion by storm at a time when women were still largely defined as housewives; to the hundreds of thousands of women throughout the world making and selling garments, accessories and home goods today, sewing continues to be a way for us to not only assert our creativity but also to establish our sense of self and financial independence.

Tell us how sewing has helped you establish your independence, and you could win a copy of Lemmon’s inspirational book for yourself! Comments must be left by 9:30 am EST on Friday, May 6th to be eligible.

57 Comments

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    May 9, 2011, 10.27 PMby summertime511

    Will love to read this book-whether I win it here or not! LOVE that women can overcome situations that I can’t even imagine living in! SO inspiring!!!

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    May 9, 2011, 05.25 PMby cdferr

    They worked in secret, and by hand?! I love how this shows sewing as not just a hobby, or a traditional skill, but as a life saver.

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    May 6, 2011, 03.33 PMby icekachang

    I read the synopsis of this book and came away with another affirmation of my faith in God. I wondered what would make one part of a society (the Taliban) bite off its own hand by creating these conditions for its own people? The men and boys are chased off or pressed fighting in war and the women are forbidden to work? What did they think would happen next? And yet__ though tamped down to where the only thing anyone could do would be to curl up and die, a tiny tiny spark remains. However long it takes this society to reconstruct itself, I am certain it will be better for all citizens. This is an object lesson for all societies. The root causes of what made the Taliban of today probably took generations to manifest but they are a failing to which all people are vulnerable.

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    May 6, 2011, 09.51 AMby SewJayne

    Amazing how sewing comes out of need. My working hours were reduced significantly just after I had taken on a large financial commitment and just as my teenage daughter was a year away from prom. Although I’ve always made the odd item for dance shows and fancy dress, I suddenly found myself having to make basic items that I would simply never thought twice about going out and buying. I watched my Mum sew at home and was fortunate to have been taught at the Girls’ school I attended. My daughters Prom dress was a bit of a nightmare and I was still sewing when her friends set off without her. I was almost in tears but she remained calm and looked more beautiful than I’d ever seen when finally the dress was on. I can totally identify with the joy that Kamila and her sister brought to so many women in such dire circumstances that I could not have begun to imagine. I wish the events of September 11 and other similar events had never occurred but, without them, we would never have been privileged to hear of the chink of light generated in that home in Khair Khana – they had the Taliban well and truly stitched up!

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    May 5, 2011, 11.34 AMby libra-s

    What an inspiring story! I started sewing when I was very young. As I grew up, sewing gave me confedence and I started sewing for others as well as myself and I still enjoy it!

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    May 5, 2011, 08.19 AMby latulipenoire

    Wow! Just wow, I’m buying this if I don’t win it. What an incredible story. I makes me think my small troubles are nothing at all. I moved to Norway following my husband to his next military assignment with NATO. I went from having all the career options in the world, to being unable to get a job because I didn’t speak Norwegian. We couldn’t even afford for me to take lessons! So instead I announced that I would do custom sewing from my home and within days I had a waiting list and more work than I could possibly do! I sew full time each day now and am paid very well for it! The best part is, I have something for me, outside of what a military life has said I could have. It feels great.

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    May 5, 2011, 04.20 AMby twosocks

    Hi, I started sewing when I was a child. I sew for myself and my fourteen grandchildren. I also sew for other people. I also love to quilt. Sewing has made me feel like God blessed me with a talent that I could use to reach people and show them the love God has for them. I love to see the end result of something I made. I could not live if I could not sew. It is me.

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    May 5, 2011, 02.32 AMby Christianne DeHart

    I have been thinking of being a volunteer to teach sewing in another country, would love to read this book!

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    May 5, 2011, 02.05 AMby di-di

    Because my mother, my grandmothers and i’m sure a great majority of my ancestors clothed themselves and their families, I have known a great connection to them when I sew. Sewing is a skill, a creative art, and a liberating exercise in choosing non-conformity. I know that if it came to it, sewing could also provide me with a livelyhood. Sewing embraces me, frees me, and inspires me!

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    May 4, 2011, 06.34 PMby karenymd

    Sewing has allowed me to make my own clothes that I love, and can afford, rather than having to buy from the sales racks. I do not have to put up with flaws in the fit. These women are very brave and smart, and I’m glad they were able to survive and thrive. I hope their story can help others, along with the work they are doing with Mercy Corp. Amazing women!

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    May 4, 2011, 05.34 PMby lauraj-1

    I have already copied the name and author of the book so that I may purchase it. I feel it will not only be an interesting read, but will maybe inspire my daughters to pull something out of themselves and find a direction. I have been sewing since I was 8. My mother hated to sew Barbie clothes because of the size. For the last couple years, as a side, I creating custom designs for 1/6th scale female Action Figures and then producing one-offs for my DH to sell in our e-business. Since his health has declined, we’ve closed our e-business and now I will re-purpose my time to designing my wardrobe, which is seriously lacking. Looking at the pictures above makes me realize how we sometimes focus and cheap and functional instead of clothes that fit and look beautiful. Also, this is the year I think to teach my son to replace buttons, fix torn sleeves or loose hems. I see no reason I shouldn’t share my sewing skills with him as I have with my daughters. Who knows, maybe he’ll find it interesting. He does have a good eye for color and even if he’s not looking at fabric, can keep himself busy in a sewing store for hours while I shop. Maybe it will wear off?

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    May 4, 2011, 03.08 PMby KLKing

    Sewing has not only changed my life, it IS my life!

    At six years old, my mother bought me my first Barbie doll, and some pre-stamped doll clothes to make. She also put embroidery and knitting in my hands. I was never without a project in my hands, and was given my first second-hand sewing machine at age 8. I made the funniest looking clothes at the time, and even wore them! By the time I was a teenager, my sewing skilles had advanced to a level of precision. My career started when I was 20, and pregnant with my daughter. I began doing “GHOST SEWING” for a local alterations shop. I learned how to re-draft patterns based on a customer’s measurements. It seemed like people always bought the wrong size. A few years later, I became involved with a costume designer, who was a member of a prestigious design guild in Hollywood, California. This designer involved me in many High-Profile projects. Eventually I heard that bridal shops were a good place to apply for a job, as a seamstress. That was nearly 30 years ago. I have literally been in every type of workroom a professional stitcher could be. Sewing has been my one Ace in my life. It has been my pleasure, passion, and livelihood.

    This work has taken me to places I would have never been otherwise. One of my heart’s desires and future goals is to help under-priveledged women abroad to develop sewing and craft based cottage industries to better the lives of their own and their communities. This article has just validated that dream! Thank You so much for posting it! Karen L. King

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    May 4, 2011, 02.50 PMby candacejcs10

    Sewing has given me a sense of independence – even when I felt most trapped by my circumstances. I fell very ill in the latter part of 2008 and could no longer contribute to help my family. I had to let go of my event planning business and my sense of self sufficiency. After months of being confined to my home, I was able to resume the one thing I always enjoyed and turned it into a hand made business – starting with a shop on Etsy. There is no feeling quite like using your pain to challenge yourself to overcome and better your situation in the midst of what seems like hopeless circumstances. What a great article to spur us on to turn our tragedy into triumph!

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    May 4, 2011, 02.49 PMby karenpdl

    Thank you for bring such a book to my attention. I will be buying it for my granddaughters. Humans were meant to be creative like our maker. What a wonderful story of overcoming adversity. Sewing has always been a creative and relaxing thing for me to do. When you create, it give you power of what you can do and that you can do it well. It, also, slows me down. You can not hurry when you sew or at least I can’t. If I do I make mistakes and it takes longer to take out the miss sewed seam. You learn a certain rhythm to the sewing and a peace about it, too. It gives one power to repurpose clothing and make something new which is power. Again thank you for telling us of this book.

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    May 4, 2011, 02.40 PMby NanaVenegas

    Sewing reminds me of my mother; I remember her sewing at the machine making me dresses. She used one pattern and made me a dozen dresses. But I was very proud to wear every one. She was my role model and that’s why this book is important ; as women we are role models to continue through adversity, stress and a method to show our creativity. Above all, as an expression of love for ourself and others.

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    May 4, 2011, 01.42 PMby easbrooke

    Sewing has helped me tackle my fears (I was afraid of sitting down at a sewing machine after so many years after home ec class) and to find joy in creating things by myself. It’s given me strength and creativity to try new things.

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    May 4, 2011, 01.33 PMby my-current-hobby

    Sewing has given my the independence to make clothes I like without having to submit to the fashion industry. I’d love to win this book. Thanks for the opportunity!

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    May 4, 2011, 01.15 PMby ladynicole

    “…how sewing has helped you establish your independence…”

    I learned to sew by sewing a top from a pattern… my mom was there to help me get started and if I got stuck, but for the most part, she let me figure it out on my own. Definitely representative of our relationship overall…

    Sewing has helped me to escape ill-fitting clothing, slavery to the fashion industry’s idea of what I should wear, and has meant that I can get whatever styles I want in my size. It means I don’t have to wait for someone else to fix a hem, sew a button back on, or to make a quilt for my new baby – I can do all this myself!

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    May 4, 2011, 12.53 PMby kharisma7

    There was a sewing machine in the house and so at age 8 I started teaching myself to sew. Mom had limited skills. By age 12, I was making most of my own clothes. Money was in short supply at home. I got $20 each fall for new underwear and shoes. I was on my own for the rest. I have spent my life sewing and at times this was my only source of income. I sew to this day and oddly, have come full circle. I just started making my own panties!

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    May 4, 2011, 11.32 AMby pollyjane

    This review reminds me of what all I have learned about sewers and quilters. Sewing has always been one of the legitimate ways for women to make a living, no matter how limited or restrictive life may be. This book tells one more chapter of women’s story. I use sewing as a way to fill and use my life. It’s part of my identity. Sometimes I sew a lot. I try to interest the young people I meet in sewing and making; sometimes I sew very little-it doesn’t matter. I am a sewer. I can’t wait to read this.

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    May 4, 2011, 10.53 AMby fabricaholic

    what an inspiration, I’d love a chance to own the book. fabricaholic

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    May 4, 2011, 09.35 AMby marielise

    I am very interested in creative social entrepreneurship and am collecting examples from a great many countries in the hope of writing about how these entreprenurs have overcome the challenges of starting up and running a business which creates new livelihoods. As a consequence I would be very interested indeed in receiving a copy of this publication. I am crossing my fingers, MB-S

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    May 4, 2011, 08.49 AMby athenamarie

    I know that I can change almost anything off the rack to fit my body and I know how clothing should fit because I know how to sew.

    I love stories like this, though, that show how women can take this skill of creation to feed and empower themselves and others.

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    May 4, 2011, 08.42 AMby pythiaalida

    that’s girlpower this woman makes me proud to be a woman

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    May 4, 2011, 08.26 AMby spud13

    When I was in my late teens, I would customise clothing and sew fresh garments from old saris and curtains. From the sale of these, I was able to support myself through university. I only sew for pleasure now, but the opportunity to be creative and express myself through needlework and crafts is a gift I will always appreciate. The satisfaction of finishing a piece of work really boosts your confidence and, in turn, your independence.

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    May 4, 2011, 05.33 AMby barbarag

    I will buy this book . These women are role models for all of us.

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    May 4, 2011, 04.46 AMby outdooranimal

    Inspiring!

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    May 4, 2011, 04.42 AMby RoniBarr

    Being a woman, living in the middle east isn’t easy. I was brought here at the age of 14, scared. I’ve been here for alightly over ten years and I’m still scared. I’ve always used my art as a means of expressing myself, although often I’ve been forced to hide my works.

    A few months ago, I learned to sew and started making my own clothes. While they “look” like ordinary, plain, clothes. They aren’t. They are so much more. They are an expression of my being – hours of thinking, planning, sketching, cutting, sewing. I dream of doing more, becoming something…

    This sounds like an amazing book. I remember reading “Lolita” and “Reading Lolita in Teheran” with a flashlight, under the covers, not to be found. I’d love to read this book as well. Please.

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    May 4, 2011, 04.27 AMby wordygirl

    Sewing has increased my emotional independence, by giving me an outlet for my creativity. I am a quilter, and this identity is stronger and more “primary” than the identity of being a woman with a chronic illness. There are days when I can’t do much, but I can sketch a quilt pattern, or dream of a quilt I’ll make when I’m feeling better, or sew a few hexagons while I rest in bed. I feel stronger and more capable because I am a quilter.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, and for the giveaway.

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