By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) - Like most Saudi Arabian girls, Raha al-Moharrak was banned from doing sports at school, a prohibition decreed on religious grounds by the kingdom's powerful clerics.
But in May, she became the first woman in her country to climb Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, winning widespread acclaim in the local press and putting a face to the idea that Saudi women are gradually expanding their horizons.
"You can't stop change," said Moharrak, a 27-year-old graphic designer, who now lives in Dubai. "The younger generation know exactly what is out there. Everything's at our fingertips."
The fact remains that if Moharrak were at home, she would not be allowed to drive a car or perform such basic tasks as opening a bank account or travelling overseas to scale her next peak without her father's permission, under the kingdom's so-called guardianship laws.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation expert survey published on Tuesday showed that Saudi Arabia is the third-worst country to be a woman in 22 Arab states, better only than Egypt and Iraq (poll2013.trust.org).
The poll, which canvassed 336 gender experts on a broad sweep of factors in August and September, rated Saudi Arabia poorly on women's involvement in politics, workplace discrimination, freedom of movement and property rights.
But Saudi scored better than many other Arab states when it came to access to education and healthcare, reproductive rights and gender violence.
King Abdullah, who has the final say on almost all Saudi issues, treads carefully around the kingdom's powerful conservative clergy, to the consternation of critics who want to see faster reforms.
But it is clear that in the big picture, the kingdom is undergoing a gradual, but tectonic, shift in attitudes.
Saudi Arabia's rules are mainly guided by the kingdom's Islamic legal system, sharia, the judges for which are clerics of the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, with broad scope to set and interpret the law.
Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the most senior such cleric and far from the most conservative, has opposed women working and driving and has said letting them into politics may mean "opening the door to evil".
Abdullah, who turns 90 this year, has diverged from the clergy's path several times in the past years, such as in late 2011 when he gave women the right to vote and run for office in local elections starting in 2015.
In January he pressed their political participation further, appointing 30 women to the Shoura Council, an advisory quasi-parliament where they now represent 20 percent of the previously all-male body.
He has also steadily loosened restrictions on women's employment in the past two years, allowing them to replace men as salespeople in lingerie and cosmetics shops and to work as waitresses in the women's sections of restaurants.
The debates swirling on Arabic social media shows the shift is happening in the broader society, as well.
"Saudi Arabia over the last few years has witnessed so many changes. From one year to the next you see so many changes in public opinion," said Hanan al-Ahmadi, one of the new Shoura Council members.
"When we went into the Shoura Council there was huge opposition. We ignored those voices and went on in our jobs and it's all calmed down," she added.
Hundreds of thousands of younger Saudi men and women who have been sent to study in foreign universities on state-funded scholarships return to the kingdom with very different ideas about their relative places in the world.
In offices, newspapers and employment fairs, young Saudi women vie for jobs that would often have been closed to their mothers, although female unemployment is nearly 36 percent, compared with only 6 percent for men.
In October, Abdullah allowed the first women in the kingdom to be licensed to practice as lawyers with the right to represent clients and to own and run their own law firms.
The women still face logistical hurdles, such as getting to and from court and handling the ban on the mixing of the sexes in the workplace. But Dania Aboaloa, a young legal consultant who was one of the first female legal graduates from King Abdulaziz University, is optimistic.
"The future is clearer and will encourage more women to study law and ask for more rights in a legal and wise way," said Aboaloa, who also studied in the United States but decided to return to Jeddah because of changes in the kingdom.
"Saudi women are living at a turning point in Saudi history. We are getting our rights back," she said. "It is a duty that I have now, especially because I am a legal consultant, that I ask for people's rights."
Actual progress for women's rights remains, for many activists, achingly slow, however.
Although a landmark domestic violence law was introduced this year, activists have called it toothless because judges may decide a man is within his rights to beat his wife, daughter or sister if he disapproves of her behavior.
The issue of male guardianship, under which a woman is subject to male supervision and permission from cradle to grave in everything from leaving the house to leaving the country, is particularly entrenched.
Traditionally viewed as a protection, it governs nearly every aspect of a woman's life, including her ability to marry or even to undergo medical treatment.
"I was a victim of violence from my father from when I was 14 until I turned 30," said Samar Badawi, a women's rights activist in Jeddah. "If I resorted to calling the police they would just say: 'He is your guardian.' He even had me put in jail for seven months for disobeying him."
She finally escaped her father's guardianship when she married her lawyer, a decision that her father also objected to but which she managed to make happen after a lengthy court battle.
Because the Saudi government's legitimacy is tied to its religious credentials, analysts say there is no chance the guardianship rules or the sharia legal system underpinning them will change anytime soon.
An area where some women activists do see hope of change soon is Saudi Arabia's position as the only country to ban women driving.
There is no specific law or text in sharia backing the men-only road rules, which government officials have often said are in place because society is not yet ready for women to drive.
As more women seek jobs, and more families come to depend on their income, lifting basic barriers to cheap transport is becoming more important.
Authorities clamped down on an October campaign to end the ban, but newspapers, online petitions, prominent Saudis and some members of the ruling family have publicly called for the rules to change.
Although analysts say there is a consensus around gradual social reform in the ruling family, it is not clear whether King Abdullah's successors would push as hard as he has.
One person who is not worried is Princess Bassma bint Majid, president of an offshoot of the al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, which trains and employs poor and disabled women to preserve and recreate the kingdom's distinctive costume designs.
"I think we've reached a point where there is no going back," she told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad in Riyadh and Lisa Anderson in New York; Editing by Tim Large and Sonya Hepinstall; For full coverage of Thomson Reuters Foundation's poll on women's rights in the Arab world, including interactive info-graphics, visit http://poll2103.trust.org)