RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA -- An attractive middle-aged woman wearing fashionable western clothes sits with her teen-aged daughter in the first-class section of a plane bound for Riyadh. As the plane enters Saudi airspace, they are handed long, black cloaks which they wrap over their clothes, covering their figures from head to foot.
The few women who can be seen in public places here are all in wide black cloaks and head veils which, in some cases, are drawn over the lower part of their faces leaving only the eyes visible.
In a cloth shop, two women can be seen sampling various materials that a male shop attendant is showing them through a hole in a glass partition.
Saudi Arabia's national laws -- drawn from Islam's holy book, the Koran -- forbid women to drive and mandate segregation of the sexes in all public places. Social traditions permit men to have as many as four wives. Such realities make Saudi Arabia seem at first glance like one of the remotest places on Earth in terms of the women's liberation movement.
But a slow yet determined feminist revolution is emerging here.
Saudi women, even the toughest feminists among them, are devout Moslems, and many are resorting to the Koran -- and society's meticulous efforts to do everything by the book -- to gain their rights.
Many women feel that opposition to higher education and work for women, laws preventing women from driving and male demands that women cover their faces are a mixture of Islamic traditions and customs as well as misinterpretations of Islamic doctrine.
Pointing out that Islam merely enjoins women to dress modestly, Saudi sociologist Aisha al Mani stressed that "there is nothing in Islam that says we have to wear a black veil -- not only over the face, but also all over us . . . . It's never mentioned in Islam."
"Islam decrees that it is the duty of every Moslem man and woman to seek an education," said Hind Khutheila, dean of the King Saud University for Women.
Khutheila, a member of one of the kingdom's most prominent tribes, said that some members of the tribe vehemently opposed her decision in the 1970s to go to the United States for graduate studies. Her father, who was chief of the tribe, had to send her to the airport with a bodyguard.
"They opposed me because they didn't believe in education for women. They thought I should be getting married. They were afraid of this new life and that I might get westernized and give up my traditions," she said.
But Saudi women, who make up 4.7 percent of the native work force, are making strides as doctors, engineers, university professors and deans, businesswomen, managers, radio broadcasters and newspaper editors.
The pioneering generation of university-educated Saudi women, now in their thirties and forties, got their training outside Saudi Arabia -- in Lebanon, the United States and Western Europe. Now, women can receive degrees in many fields, including medicine and dentistry, at universities in Saudi Arabia.
Regarding Saudi Arabia's prohibition of female drivers, Mani said she believed the law would eventually change. "I don't see anything in Islam that prohibits a woman from driving," she added.
Polygamy, Khuteila said, is another example of this nation's misinterpretation -- and occasional violation -- of Islamic teachings. Although it is estimated to have dropped by about 50 percent over the last two decades, she said, it still remains prevalent.
"Islam describes polygamy as the least-favored practice allowed by God and stipulates that a man must treat all his wives equally," Khutheila said. "What many people overlook is that the Koran says that it is not possible to treat wives equally, and therefore a man should have one wife except in cases where the couple cannot have children or there are other extenuating circumstances."
She said women were equally to blame for the practice because they fail to exercise their right to reject marriage offers from men who are already married. "It's the fault of the women. If they would cooperate to reject the phenomenon, it would not continue. They must collectively reject it," she said.
Segregation between men and women is another phenomenon that touches on virtually every aspect of Saudi life and results in "separate but equal" facilities for women: Universities have special segregated branches for women. Restaurants have separate sections for women. Banks have women-only branches. And in government offices, women are provided with segregated working spaces that are off limits to men.
In offices where paper work must be passed between departments in which men work, an expatriate woman employe carries the paper work to another area of the building connecting the women's department to the male-occupied offices. There, she is met by a male employe.
Offices in which contact must occur between the sexes are required to employ married couples through whom paper work exchanges are conducted.
Saudi women are not lobbying to desegregate their society, sociologists say, mainly because segregation is a deeply ingrained social custom, and fighting it now could cause women to lose some of the gains they have managed to make so far.
Some women believe that, at least for the time being, segregated employment has provided women with professional advantages because it has allowed them to bypass the male bureaucratic hierarchy and move quickly to the top in parallel female bureaucratic structures.
"Segregation here in Saudi Arabia has to a certain extent helped women when they entered the job market because that gave them the opportunity to take leadership positions which wouldn't have been possible if the workplace had not been segregated," sociologist Mani said.