"Does Islamic art exist?" Hend Al Moghunni stared at the sentence on her art-history final exam. The freshman fashion student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar thought, Is that even a question?! But after a year of being challenged to analyze and argue, she knew her professor didn't just want her to validate Muslim art. "Of course Islamic art exists, but I realized it has become so blended with other influences," recalls Al Moghunni, now 25 and client manager at a Qatari design consultancy. "He was pushing me to see it from a different perspective."
Qatar, a tiny emirate where it's still controversial to photograph females, is an unlikely place to find young women designing couture for the catwalk. But 10 years ago, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the Islamic state's emir, decided she wanted to provide women with educational and career paths that extended beyond traditional jobs as teachers and secretaries.
She challenged VCU, the top visual arts school in the United States, to open a fully accredited, all-female outpost in Doha, her state's capital. The Richmond-based university was buzzed by the idea of building a school from scratch in a culture trying to raise the ceiling for women—and by the opportunity to pioneer the design field in the Middle East. In 1998, VCU Qatar opened its doors to 36 fashion, interior, and graphic design students, nearly all garbed in black abayas and shaylas with designer jeans underneath.
Today, VCU Qatar has 185 students, and its 118 alumnae are designing everything from the venue for this year's Asian Games to new uniforms for Qatar's military. Getting these women to express their creativity has meant shaking them out of the comfortable timidity their culture reinforces. So the school's mostly American professors have had to create a provocative yet safe environment. "We learned to express ourselves in front of anybody without being embarrassed," says Mona Al Essa, a 2002 interior design grad who now renovates historical buildings for the state.
Now, Qatari women can show off their own fashions—albeit only at all-female gatherings. And VCU is starting to build a Middle Eastern design community, a network that's essential for alums like Al Moghunni. After graduation, she recalls, she had no female role models. Today, she is one. "It's beyond proving something to men or being a feminist," she says. "It's more about being part of a society that for a long time did not use our talent."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.