Foreign Affairs Plus: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
This Foreign Affairs Plus collection includes a selection from The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. It also includes an exclusive Q&A with Lemmon.
Question: In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, you wrote that many women in Rwanda have built successful partnerships with international corporations such as Macy’s. Is the same thing happening in Afghanistan today? How do corporations support the Afghan economy?
Lemmon: Kate Spade recently announced a partnership with Women for Women, a nonprofit organization that offers skills training and livelihood support to women in Afghanistan. Another nonprofit, Bpeace, collaborates with a sporting goods company in New York to buy soccer halls from Afghan women; they are currrently seeking orders for the soccer balls. Corporations can help by purchasing goods made in Afghanistan to build a market for the small businesses there. Although they face insecurity and corruption, men and women in Afghanistan start businesses every day to support their families. And as you see in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, entrepreneurship provided a lifeline at a time when the Kabul economy had largely collapsed.
Question: What shortcomings does microfinance have when it comes to giving the women of Afghanistan economic opportunities?
Lemmon: Microfinance is one solution to fighting poverty and providing economic opportunity, but it is not the only solution. Men and women use microfinance loans to start businesses in Afghanistan, and such enterprises help families to survive. The biggest challenge, however, is finding investors to support small- and medium-sized enterprises in a country with incredibly high-risk premiums. Small business funding is difficult to secure in the United States. In war zones, it is even scarcer and prohibitively expensive for both banks and entrepreneurs. That is why new initiatives, such as loan guarantee programs matter -- they help entrepreneurs secure the funding they need to invest in and grow their businesses.
Question: In the book’s introduction, you write about the trouble you had finding a businesswoman to interview when you arrived in Afghanistan. How has the visibility of women entrepreneurs there changed since?
Lemmon: It is indeed easier to find businesswomen in Afghanistan now than it was in 2005 when I began writing about this topic. Experienced entrepreneurs are becoming role models for men and women who want to start their own businesses. Women have become increasingly interested in entrepreneurship because they see other women-run small businesses thriving, and because other jobs are scarce. Entrepreneurship makes an immediate and tangible differences in the economic lives of families. You now find women running logistics firms, dried fruit companies, radio stations, and consultancies.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (HarperCollins, 2011)
I touched down in Afghanistan for the first time on a raw winter morning in 2005 after two days of travel that took me from Boston to Dubai via London. My eyes stung and my head whirled. Too anxious to sleep, I had stayed up all night in Dubai’s Terminal II waiting for the Ariana flight to Kabul, scheduled to depart at 6:30 a.m. The Afghan airline urged travelers to arrive three hours early, which made finding a hotel feel somewhat beside the point. The predawn destinations on the big black travel board read like a guide to the world’s exotic hot spots: Karachi, Baghdad, Kandahar, Luanda. I realized I was the only woman in the airport. . .