In public, they are clad in black from head to toe, they cannot vote and they cannot drive - that is the state of Saudi Arabia's women. But, on a visit to the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, VOA's Sonja Pace found many are becoming more vocal in seeking greater rights and equality.

Football is immensely popular in Saudi Arabia. And sports fan Rezan Baker often reports on local matches for the English-language Arab News - but not from up-close.

"The majority of what I cover is men's sports," she said. "It's a bit difficult here because I don't get to attend matches, I just attend by watching it on TV or interviewing them [the players] by phone."

The reason is that as a woman, Baker cannot attend a match and cannot interview the players in person. But, she likes sports and says she will not let these restrictions stand in the way.

Saudi women face many hurdles. They must wear ankle-length black robes and a headscarf in public, they cannot drive, they are limited in what they can study at the university and they are not allowed to mingle with men to whom they are not related.

Sociologist Munira Nahedh of King Saud University in Riyadh says one must not be fooled by the public image of Saudi women.

"We see women clad in black and they don't seem like full human beings when you see them outside in the street because you don't see the face, you don't see expression, you don't see the dignity of the human being," she said. "But, that is totally a false impression because Saudi women, because of the restrictions and because of this unequal kind of opportunity that they are facing in this society, have become great fighters and they have become great achievers."

"Achiever," is definitely a word that comes to mind when talking with Nahed Taher. She is the CEO and founder of Gulf One investment bank. She was among a group of businessmen and women at a recent banking and investment forum in Jeddah.

Behind her flowing abaya and loosely wrapped headscarf, Taher exudes a no-nonsense attitude. She says even in oil-rich Saudi Arabia there is an increasing need for women to contribute to the family income and that she says is a great opportunity for women.

"There is a huge support for women to participate in the economy, but in order to make it a success, it needs to be based on capabilities - not for show-off as a woman, or whatever," she said. "Here we can succeed and achieve, not only for women, but for the whole community. When I hire in Gulf One [Bank], for example, I don't see gender, I don't see nationality, what I see is a brain."

Taher says her message to Saudi women is: study hard, work hard and make change happen.

But, change does not happen easily in this traditional desert kingdom. Sociologist Munira Nahedh would know. She was among a group of Saudi women who in 1990 tried the direct approach - by getting behind the wheel of their cars and driving in public - against strict Saudi custom.

"To us it was a symbolic issue - actually symbolizing a lot of our needs and demands as Saudi women - our needs to change and our demands for a more open and a more equal situation in the society," she said.

The inspiration came from American women soldiers, stationed in the kingdom during the Gulf War, who were allowed by Saudi authorities to drive jeeps and trucks as part of their duties. And, so says Nahedh, she and other Saudi women thought - why not us.

They did not get far - the women drivers were quickly stopped by police. Some lost their jobs, at least for a while, and pressure was put on their families to not let this happen again.

But, says Nahedh, driving is more than a symbolic issue.

"It's a real need," she said. "There are women in the villages, in the cities, who are having problems because they cannot drive."

Nahedh cites as one example, working women who must spend a good portion of their salaries on hiring a driver.

Among those most opposed to women driving has been the conservative clerical establishment. But Khalil al Khalil, a member of the Consultative Council, says the government is discussing the issue.

"Female driving - it's coming," he said. "Whether the mufti, whether the mullahs, whether the imams of mosques like to or not - it is coming and it's coming soon."

There is widespread agreement that Islam does not forbid women to drive, that, instead, it is tradition that stands in the way.

Sociologist Munira Nahedh says change needs to come soon.

"For me personally, I'm talking about a woman who is middle aged, who needs to see the change before she dies," she said. "This is too slow for me. I cannot wait another 30 years for things to happen. It cannot happen this way."

Nahedh says the changes needed are not just about women driving, but are fundamental - to give women equal opportunities and an equal stake in the society. She cautions that if Saudi Arabia does not change, its men and women risk being left behind in today's world.