Interview with Gayle Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Gayle Lemmon, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program and author of the newly-released book titled, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana recently answered questions posed by WIPA members.  WIPA member questions reflected WIPA’s diversity of interests, including the essential role women play in in the peacemaking process to managing the work-life balance.

Gayle the has spent years traveling the globe working in both the private and public sector.  She has worked as a journalist on behalf of ABC News, NBC News, NPR and MSNBC in addition to a number of print medias.  She has also published papers on women and business on behalf of many international organizations including the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.  Her latest exciting endeavor is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA tells the story of a real-life heroine, a young entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years.  The story behind the book grew out of a trip to Afghanistan in December 2005 when Tzemach Lemmon was assigned to write a story for The Financial Times and a case for Harvard Business School on Afghan women entrepreneurs.  There she met Kamila Sidiqi, an unlikely breadwinner who had become an entrepreneur under the Taliban. Desperate to support her five brothers and sisters at home and banished from Kabul’s streets by the Taliban, she started a dressmaking business in her living room which offered work to 100 women in her neighborhood. Together these unsung heroines made the difference between survival and starvation for their families despite—and sometimes because of—the Taliban. THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA tells their story for the first time. (Summary from

Gayle Lemmon Responds to WIPA Member’s Questions

1. How do you view the role of women in peacekeeping? (Sasha, 2011)

Women don’t make the rules of war but they must live with its consequences. They pull families through war and yet they receive no seat at the table in the war’s aftermath.  More must be done from the international community and by women themselves to demand a seat at the table when it comes to creating peace.  And more women peacekeepers and more policewomen would be a start to creating the kind of change which allows women to be seen and heard throughout the reconstruction process. After all, women are allies in creating more stable communities throughout the world. They have a stake in peace. And they should have a seat at the table.

2. Its been over 15 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  Do you feel that a Fifth World Conference is necessary or has the growing emphasis on gender-specific development policies negated the need for such a gathering? (Sophie, 2011)

I think the next step is creating development strategies which really work for women. We all agree women are important. Now what? We must move beyond microfinance and trainings to strategies which build on women’s economic potential and contain market linkages that allow women to benefit from development programs long after the aid money stops. Targeting girls education is also critical. There is no better multiplier in the fight against poverty than an educated young woman.

3.  What advice would you give to young women who might be considering careers situated in conflict-zones?

Think hard about your decisions and pursue your passions while managing the risks to the greatest extent you might, that would be my advice. And if you feel passionately about the work, then pursue it, no matter how many people tell you it can’t be done or you are not the right person to do it. There will always be naysayers and you will always make mistakes, but that is okay so long as you work hard and care deeply about the work you are undertaking while keeping a very clear eye on its risks.

4.  Many studies argue that mixed teams (i.e. male & female) produce better output than single-gender teams. Why do you think private and public organizations still have a low number of female leaders despite this knowledge? What are the biggest challenges to be overcome? (Christina, 2011)

I wish I had a better answer to that. I do think more women are entering the development field, but I also think we aim low when it comes to women and sometimes women aim low on their own behalf. Women should be encouraged to both enter and then stay in the development arena because their views are critical to creating better teams and smarter programs.  Mentoring would be a help, as would a focus by leadership on the importance of including different voices when building teams.  The change needs to be both bottom-up and top-down.  And my sense is at the moment the biggest challenge is 1) keeping qualified women in the sector; and 2) convincing the leadership of various organizations that fostering female leadership is not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do from a  management perspective.

5. One of the key reasons why women do not pursue leadership positions is the difficulties of combining work and family. What policies could help solve this challenge? (Christina, 2011)

There is no answer to this that will fit every woman’s life.   Policies which could help include far more flexible working hours and schedules and, for those who want a reduced schedule, some opportunity to share positions.  As for where we are now, the real answer, I think, is to find a partner who will help you achieve your goals and to be realistic about the trade-offs you will inevitably make. It is unfortunate that women bear the responsibility for this work-life combination more than men, but at the moment I do not see that changing, though I wish I did. I also think that women should not give up. They should talk to their employers and explore possibilities for workplaces that let them do the work they wish while also caring for their family responsibilities.

You can purchase of copy of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana at  Click the image or this link to obtain your copy of this important new work.

Visit Gayle Lemmon’s website to see her full bio and read a sample chapter of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. You can also follow Gayle on her Twitter feed @gaylelemmon

Please note that this interview was originally scheduled to be released the previous Friday.  Due to unforeseen challenges I encountered in South East Asia the publication of this interview was delayed until today.  Many thanks are extended to Ms. Lemmon for her contribution to and support of the WIPA blog.

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4 Responses to Interview with Gayle Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

  1. SophieGuerin says:

    Gayle Lemmon wrote this week’s cover story for Newsweek – The Hillary Doctrine.

    Click the link below to read the full article

    The Hillary Doctrine

    • Markus says:

      Gayle,Thank you for your positive mceomnt. Many of the women in our MPA program are interested in working in microfinance and it is something that we discuss quite often as a policy tool. I’ve always been wary of the argument that it can be used to cure poverty but I rarely hear otherwise. Thus when I read your interview, I appreciated your well reasoned and nuanced argument – that microfinance is just one of many tools available to policy makers, NGOs and international organizations. Though I live in Paris, I will just so happen to be in DC the week of March 15th to take the Foreign Service oral interviews. I would love to attend the event on either March 17th or 19th and chat with you in further detail. Thank you & congratulations again on your extraordinary book. Sophie

  2. Pingback: Can M.I.T. Imagine a World Without Gender Quotas? | Women in International Public Affairs

  3. Rivaldo says:

    the The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.a0 My review of this amzaing book is here.a0 When we chose this book for our next pick, we had no idea what a HUGE deal it would become.a0

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