Celebrating the strength of women in Afghanistan in "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana"

Gayle Tzemach LemmonGayle Tzemach LemmonWhen we think of women in Afghanistan, we think of burkas and oppression, of being forced by law and by convention to stay hidden, to forgo an education, to give up freedom. But journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon looks at them and sees strength.

"By the 1960s and 70s, there were women in Kabul universities and in medical school, and it wasn't even that exceptional," she says. "They were studying abroad, working as teachers, as professors. It's not as if we're trying to give them rights that they never had."

One of the biggest misconceptions we have about women in Afghanistan is that they've never played a major role in Afghan society. "The image is always the one of the woman in the burka who is at home and deprived of every right she has," Lemmon says, "instead of the one who is struggling within the confines to contribute as much as she can."

Lemmon's new book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," is the true story of such women.

A former journalist, Lemmon worked for 10 years covering political news and public affairs as a producer with ABC News' political unit and "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." She left ABC in 2004 for Harvard Business School.

"While at Harvard, I started writing about the role of women entrepreneurs in war zones, women who were starting businesses in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Bosnia," she says. "People are so used to seeing women in these areas as victims to be pitied rather than as survivors."

"The business stories always make me pretty hopeful," she adds. "Some stories break my heart."

During her winter break in 2005, she went to Afghanistan to write about women entrepreneurs for The Financial Times. "These women were kind of outside of the networks, just trying to support their families," she remembers. Afghanistan is "an intriguing place. You can't really get it out of your system, because the stories are so incredible and people's resilience is so impressive."

Kamila Sidiqi was one of these women. She had given up a lucrative job at a non-governmental organization (NGO), and told Lemmon that she believed in the power of entrepreneurship to transform Afghanistan. In fact, she said, she "had this great business during the Taliban," Lemmon remembers.

Sidiqi started a dressmaking business in her living room in order to support her five brothers and sisters; her business brought jobs to 100 women in her neighborhood.

"Really, the true story stands for so many other stories around the world, stories about what young women do everyday to pull their families through really impossible times and never get credit for," Lemmon says. "In some ways, she became an entrepreneur because of the Taliban. She did the one thing she could do-work at home."

Lemmon disagrees with the idea that stories about women like Sidiqi are "cute" or "soft." "What's easier: shooting a gun through a window, or picking up the pieces and putting a tarp up over where the window was?" she asks. "It really should be revisited: What women do in war zones is really hard."

"This story set in Afghanistan, but could just as easily be US during World War II or the Civil War." Lemmon points out. "This is what women do in really tough situations, to find a way."

The hope is evident, but the heartbreak? Lemmon talks about other stories she's reported about, including that of a 12-year-old girl she met in a shelter. The girl had been engaged to a man decades older than her, sold to him in order to finance her father's drug habit, and was living with her future in-laws, who were waiting for her to begin menstruation so that the marriage could be finalized. Lemmon says that she had been told over and over again that the Western world shouldn't bother fighting to save child brides. "But if a 10-year-old girl in Afghanistan knows it's wrong, how can you not?" She asks. "None of these girls are going willingly. They know they'd rather be at school. They know they'd rather be with their family. So why wouldn't you try to tell their stories and get them out?"

"I do think that change has to come from within," she adds. "But there are ways you can support those women and fight for it."

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