JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
In public, the mystery of the veil is rarely questioned in Saudi Arabia. The bright eyes of women dart from left to right, peering through narrow black slits at the world outside, sometimes showing the sharp contours of eyeliner. A glance can speak volumes - the only indication that an individual lives within.
To many Westerners - especially women - the veil represents demeaning coercion, restriction, immobility, and ultimate degradation.
But behind the veils in Saudi Arabia, there are often sophisticated computer programmers, business professionals, and other educated women who defend the veil and what it demands of men in their society.
Slowly, the role of women is changing in Saudi Arabia. Though still segregated from men, they earn college degrees and even run their own businesses - while carrying on traditional customs with dignity.
Despite such advances, women's "liberation" in Saudi Arabia is still a long way off. And for many reasons, the veil - and what it stands for in terms of religious morality, some Saudi women say - is as valid for those with an education as those without.
In public, with their husbands or other male family members, they keep Saudi custom by covering themselves from head to toe with a black cloak called the abayya. Many wear the veil.
But in private - and increasingly in all-female offices - they dispense with such formalities and run their homes and businesses with confidence.
"The good thing is that never in my life have I felt more safe," says one woman with a degree in the sciences, speaking in her office.
Her abayya hangs near the door, on a coat rack. She wears clothes that would fit in at any American office - and asks not to be named.
Keeping men in line
But if any Saudi men - who expect women to wear veils - were to enter this all-female office, the workers would feel obliged to cover themselves.
"My husband can't even kiss his cousin. He can't go with anyone else, so there is never any question of divorce, and no affairs," she says. "This I like very much."
Another veiled woman says the respect accorded the veil is, at times, a pleasure: Women must always be driven, and "a woman feels like a princess - with the husband taking care."
Evidence of feminine privacy is everywhere in Saudi Arabia.
In the old town section of the Jeddah, a port since the time of Prophet Muhammad, every window and balcony is covered with blue, green, or brown-painted wood lattice blinds to "protect" the women inside from the eyes of men.
Saudi Arabia's policy of educating women - which many Western analysts and Saudis say is a "time bomb" - has yet to fundamentally change that relationship. The adjustments are subtle.
"It will affect the next generation," says another young woman, who also holds a university degree. "When a woman is educated, she teaches her child in a certain way.
Men also are beginning to change, but that is limited. They are not in the same offices, and in front of Saudi men I cover my face."
One Western woman, a 20-year resident of Saudi Arabia, agrees that Western stereotypes about the veil are often wrong but adds that social change here is rarely abrupt.
"It's evolution, not revolution," she says. "People here hate sudden change - they even ask why Pepsi changed its cans to blue."
Saudi women say some Western freedoms do not appeal to them. One woman recalls visiting a beach for American soldiers stationed in Saudi during the Gulf war.
"Women and men were wearing almost nothing," she says. "They have their life, and we have ours. But with satellite TV, everyone knows everything. We see it, but there is a limit to our freedom."
Does she want such freedoms for herself? Without hesitation she replies: "No, no, no, no!
"You have your religion inside you, and this is what controls people here," she says.
Life behind the veil is not always so restrictive, however.
Unlike in some cultures, Saudi women often make the final decision about whom they will marry.
Most choose a man like their fathers: If he was conservative, so will be their husbands; if he was open-minded, so will be their spouses.
These days, few Saudi men marry more than one wife - even though four are permitted by Islamic law - because of the high cost of maintaining more than one household, and because the Koran requires that each wife be treated equally.
Still, Saudi women say they exert strong influence on their society, and their husbands.
"A home is a woman's domain," said one professional woman, who adds with a laugh:
"Women here can make the man like a ring on our fingers - we have our tricks."