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Operation Slip Knot

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There are rumblings within the ranks of the Qatari military, a growing rumor that's spreading among enlistees gossiping over cigarettes in their courtyard break areas: Their new uniforms might be pink.

Nothing could be further from the truth, says Hawa Stwodah, and she should know. The Virginia Commonwealth University graduate is overseeing the design development of a $1.7 million overhaul of the Qatari military's apparel. Her team is updating everything - camouflage, military office wear and dress suits on down to "socks, underwear and cufflinks,?VbCrLf she says.

Stwodah works with a team at the Center for Research in Design in Doha, the capital of the relatively liberal, wealthy peninsula nation, an appendage off Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. The Qatari military mostly does peacekeeping work; it helped defend Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion in 1992. Stwodah spoke with Style during a trip back to the States last month.

VCU opened a satellite campus for its arts school 10 years ago in Doha, offering art, design, fashion and interior decorating classes to women (last year, the school enrolled its first male student). VCU's Doha location is part of a little colony of U.S. schools that have set up shop in Qatar's Education City. Georgetown has a foreign service program, Carnegie-Mellon hosts a business and computer science school, Cornell University runs a medical program and Texas A&M University has an engineering department there. Northwestern plans to start a journalism program in the fall.

The center was founded to offer the newly Western-educated Arab students a platform to take on civic projects for the government. Like VCU, the country has undergone a rapid modernization in the last decade, Qatar's growth fueled by oil and natural gas. Most of Stwodah's team are young local women who were trained at VCU's satellite school in fashion and design.

As an American woman working on a military contract in an Arab nation that still practices arranged marriages, Stwodah stands at a potentially volatile intersection of cultural expectations, but she's used to negotiating such territory.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Stwodah's family fled the country and settled in Farmville. "It's seven kids,?VbCrLf she says. "Good, old-fashioned immigrant family.?VbCrLf Her father taught library science at Longwood University. The Muslim community there is not very large. "It's us,?VbCrLf she says.
When it was time for college, Stwodah headed to Richmond to attend VCU, where she majored in art. The broad requirements of the arts foundation courses required her to take nude figure drawing and sculpture classes. She'd travel home every weekend and cautiously unfurl that week's work. Her father's eyes would grow wide, but he let his daughter follow the path she chose. She eventually went into fashion.

"No Muslim girl could ever be a sculpture major,?VbCrLf she says. The controversy around figure drawing and sculpture stems from an Islamic prohibition against idol worship. The stricture has reasserted itself in her work for the Qatari military.

On U.S. military uniforms, a stampede of eagles, skulls and wolves delineate unit and division insignia. Those images are prohibited from being on or near a praying Muslim, so part of the challenge for Stwodah has been to work with designers to create a whole new set of symbols to identify rank.

The prohibition against idol worship has, of course, been in place for centuries, and over time a tradition of decorative calligraphy has grown to fill the gap. Her team has turned to those traditional images for inspiration, she says, "to turn the writing into an image almost.?VbCrLf

She's also had to find ways to reconcile the functional side of uniform design with Islamic law. New textiles offer a host of high-tech benefits, including protection from ultraviolet rays and microbial- and odor-fighting materials. Drawing sweat and moisture away from the skin, or wicking, is also a key feature, especially for a desert army. Silk works especially well, but Islamic religious law prohibits such a luxurious fiber from touching a man's skin.

The differences between U.S. and Qatari soldiers extends beyond the philosophical. Qatari men have a slightly shorter average height and shorter torsos. The standard Western body type features narrower legs and hips. Stwodah and her team have calibrated a new set of small, medium and large sizes using three-dimensional digital body-scanning machines. Eddie Bauer used to haul the same scanning machines to malls for custom jean fittings, says Karen Videtic, chair of VCU's stateside fashion and merchandising department.
A consultant from the United States Military Academy has been advising Stwodah on new camouflage designs. She can't comment too much on it, but acknowledges that digitized patterns have become popular lately.

Qatar was under British influence for much of the last century and has retained some of its military customs. The uniforms are stark black, white, navy and green, and tend to stand out in the desert. One easy decision has been to shift the color scheme to "beiges, neutrals, creams, sand - the colors of the desert,?VbCrLf accented with maroon, Stwodah says, a traditional Qatari color.

The designs ought to be completed by the end of the year; then the Qatari government will shop the designs to industrial manufacturers. Until then, she says, "my life is cargo pockets.?VbCrLf S
 
 

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