The oppression of women under Shari'a law has no clearer embodiment than the apparel that renders them formless, if not faceless, in public. When the Western fashion sector embraces such attire, it sets a poor precedent for society as a whole.

Examples abound. In December 2006, Marie Claire featured photos of glamorous women frolicking about Dubai in head and face coverings. A few months later, London Fashion Week premiered several outfits — obviously inspired by Islamic dress — that obscure all but the models' eyes.

Now fashion students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been creating abayas, the traditional cloak worn by women in the Persian Gulf region. The assignment was to make them "stylish yet acceptable in Arab countries":

"We were trying to make a feeling of youth — but still be true to their culture," said Kendra Palin, a fashion design major who partnered with classmate Shelby Day to design an abaya with looped buttonholes, princess seams, and a high waist. "Everything else had to be black, but the embellishment could be any color, and we used silver and blue."

The 10 abayas were shown recently at VCU's annual student fashion show and are being shipped to Doha, Qatar's capital, for a fashion show at the VCU School of the Arts in Qatar.

Instructor Kim Guthrie incorporated the project into her "Give Me Shelter" class, "during which her students discussed the idea of clothing as shelter and how different cultures address the concept of clothing." But has the experience taught young adults anything about the plight of women subjected to Shari'a? Not according to these quotes:

Palin said the abaya she designed isn't completely Westernized, "but it's fun and fashionable" for her intended wearer: a 20-something woman. She said she found it interesting that women can wear "pants and cute little tops" underneath and shed their abayas in women-only gatherings.


"Hopefully, if nothing else, those 20 people in my class have gained a more neutral approach to what goes on in the world," Guthrie said. "Just because the women wear this doesn't mean they're oppressed."

VCU provides yet another example of how someone can graduate from college without knowing very much at all. And unlike women's bodies, ignorance is difficult to hide.