At a dinner US Secretary of State John Kerry hosted in Washington last March for visiting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — who was accompanied by several female leaders — he tried to pay tribute to the achievements of the president’s deputy chief of staff, Kamila Sidiqi. “I met her on my first trip to Kabul…she was a very brave entrepreneur who started her own business in her home at a time when the Taliban kept all women off the street. And I would like to honour her…where is she?” he asked, his eyes scanning the room.
Sidiqi, 39, was nowhere in sight. She had, in fact, skipped the dinner to attend a street vigil for a young Afghan woman murdered by a mob in Kabul several days earlier, who had in death become a champion for women’s rights.
If Sidiqi’s name sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because she’s the protagonist in the 2011 New York Times’ bestseller The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s revealing book about life under Taliban rule in the latter half of the 1990s, a time when ladies were barred from school and needed male chaperones when in public. Described by actress and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie as a story “guaranteed to move you”, it reads like riveting fiction, but actually faithfully recounts how a then 19-year-old started a dress-making business that provided for her family and helped some 150 neighbourhood women put food on the table.
“When I started that business, I never thought that one day I would be here,” Sidiqi, wearing a pantsuit and headscarf, tells me over coffee at the InterContinental Singapore, where she is due to speak at The World in 2016 Gala Dinner staged by The Economist later that evening. “I had studied to be a teacher, but with the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul, teaching was not possible. And when my father and brother had to leave the country, because they were under critical threat, I had to look for means of supporting my family. That’s how the home tailoring business started — out of a very bad situation where there was no chance for women to find work. But I’m very happy now because [I’ve seen how] when women have confidence and belief in themselves, we can bring change to the family, society and also, country.”
In late 1998, with her tailoring business flourishing, Sidiqi joined the UN-backed Women’s Community Forum to bring educational, health and training programmes to women around Kabul and later, the International Organization for Migration — all against the wishes of her sister Malika, at the time the eldest in the family to remain in Kabul, whom Sidiqi would ordinarily defer to. “What do you think will happen to me, to your other sisters, if you are caught? Are you willing to put all of us at risk?” Lemmon recounts her sister’s plea in the book. The danger was real. Once, while on her way to a training session in Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, Sidiqi found herself staring down the barrel of an AK-47, when a young Talib soldier found her and her UN colleagues without a mahram (chaperone).
After the American invasion (in retaliation for the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001 attacks) and the fall of the Taliban regime, Kamila established a Mercy Corps Women’s Centre in Kabul that offered literacy and vocational courses. In 2004, she started Kaweyan Business Development Services, the country’s first business training provider.
Today, the Kaweyan Group of Companies has grown to also include Baawar Consulting Group (a research and consultancy firm), Naweyan Nawed (a dried fruits business that supports over 10,000 farmers), Kaweyan Logistics (a courier and taxi service) and the Kaweyan Institute for Professionals, which trains job-seekers. “Afghanistan today is a land of opportunities for business,” she tells me.
The first day that Kaweyan Logistics launched its fleet of taxis that provide safe, reliable transportation, particularly for women and families, Sidiqi received some 3,000 comments on Facebook. “It was all from men who proclaimed to support me. That’s life-changing,” she says.
In September 2014, when US-educated anthropologist-turned-reformist-politician Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president (in the first peaceful transfer of power since the fall of the Taliban), Sidiqi was offered the position of his deputy chief of staff in charge of technology, finance and hiring. “His Excellency had read the book and understood the difficulties and challenges that I had faced. When [campaigning] and he was asked about the economic empowerment of women, he would say: ‘If you don’t believe women can do business, go and learn from Kamila Sidiqi.’ He said it a few times and it was carried by the news channels. So, he later offered me the position in his new government,” she says.
“I thought to myself: ‘Yes, now is the time to work and support my country’. Because until then, my work with women was on the community level. But working in government, I could make more [positive] impact in nation-building efforts,” Sidiqi adds.
She also relished the idea of being able to influence policies that could bring about increased opportunity for women to rise into leadership positions both in government and the private sector. Already, she estimates that 30 percent of staff at the Presidential Palace are women. “In the beginning, the number of women was much less. Now, of the 30 percent, at least six to eight women are department heads and top levels like me.”
While Afghanistan may be known for having one of the world’s lowest literacy rates, she feels encouraged that in big cities like Kabul — which boasts the country’s highest female literacy level of roughly 35 percent — more women are attending college and entering the workforce. But the majority of Afghan women never will, she acknowledges. “Often, parents will say: ‘You are female, you should be at home’. This leads them to think that they are not capable of [contributing economically] and that their role is to support their brothers instead. But with proper support and training, these women can become very good leaders.”
Sidiqi, herself, was raised in Khair Khana, a neighbourhood in north-western Kabul, where she is one of 11 siblings born to a former military officer and a housewife. Despite having to provide for two boys and nine girls, her father was adamant that every one of them were educated. Her elder sister, Malika, not only ran her own tailoring business and was the one who taught Sidiqi to sew, she has since stepped in to steer the Kaweyan Group of Companies, now that Sidiqi is a public servant. Her younger sisters Saaman and Laila, both of whom helped in the tailoring business during Taliban rule, have completed their university degrees. So, too, have their two brothers, whose courses were funded by their sister’s work.
Apart from levelling the field for women, Sidiqi is focused on tackling corruption (new computerised systems have been rolled out) and bringing international attention to investment opportunities in her country — an objective that is never far from her mind, especially on days like this when 5,200km from home, she’ll be able to work a roomful of business leaders from the region.
“I really enjoy my work and I want to continue doing so. But the day I see that I am unable to bring change to the government and government policies, I will rejoin the private sector.”
How about running for a political position, I ask. Without a word, she simply shakes her head.