Progress in the kingdom comes slowly, and not at all surely.
Women in Saudi Arabia won a small but promising victory this year. No, they are not being allowed to drive; that's still forbidden. Most of the time they still can't work, travel or even open bank accounts without the approval of a male guardian. But they do have this: they can now buy lingerie in stores from female sales assistants instead of the sometimes leering men who used to staff the counters. If this modest wave of liberalisation continues, they may even get fitting rooms.
It doesn't sound like much, but in the glacial process of modernisation in the tradition-bound kingdom, it's an important step.
''This is the beginning of a real social change,'' Eman Nafjian, one of the new generation of Saudi women's activists, tells me over coffee in Riyadh, the capital. ''It will allow more women to work in shopping malls. And that's a step towards more opportunities for women's employment in general.''
Advertisement: Story continues below It wasn't easy to win the right to sell lingerie. The change has been debated since 2005 and was resisted by traditionalists who oppose women working outside the home - even though, in this case, the prohibition forced women to bargain with men over bras and panties. The rule was changed only after women spent two years agitating through a Facebook campaign called ''Enough Embarrassment'', and only after the labour minister was emboldened to obtain and enforce a decree from King Abdullah.
That's a microcosm, Nafjian says, of how life is improving for women in Saudi Arabia: slowly, and not at all surely. In Saudi terms, Abdullah is a moderniser; he has promoted education for women, including thousands of college scholarships in the US, and has even promised to begin appointing women to his official advisory council, the Shura, in 2013. (There is no elected legislature.) Still, each tiny step forward prompts furious resistance from traditionalists, including Islamic scholars who warn that change is irreligious and the conservative women who say they like the old ways better.
Nafjian, 33, started a blog in English a few years ago, Saudiwoman's Weblog (www.saudiwoman.me), that brought the concerns of educated, upwardly mobile Saudi women to a global audience. She has written about basic rights (women still can't vote), child marriage (in rural areas, girls as young as eight are sometimes given to older men as brides) and issues of everyday life such as driving and shopping.
She walked into a hotel lobby for our meeting dressed in a black abaya, the head-to-toe garment that Saudi women wear in public, and a veil that covered almost all her hair. She was trailed by her brother Khalid, who came along cheerfully as driver and chaperone. He supports her activism. ''All these restrictions on women are nuts,'' he says. Her husband, a telecommunications engineer, supports her stances too, she says. She has three small children, teaches English and is finishing work on a doctorate in linguistics.
The Saudi women's movement won foreign attention last June when at least five women were arrested for daring to drive their own cars in cities. (Nafjian, who has not learnt to drive, videotaped the protest as a passenger in a friend's car.) But driving wasn't the main thing that made the government angry (driving by women is tolerated in rural areas); it was the challenge of a noisy, well-publicised protest.
''The driving issue has become a little tedious,'' Nafjian says. ''The ban will be changed one of these days, I'm sure of it. But for the moment, they're happy that all we're asking for is women driving instead of the downfall of the government.''
More important than driving, she says, are issues such as basic legal rights (a woman's testimony in court still has only half the weight of a man's), employment (women are still restricted to jobs where they won't have to mingle with men, such as teaching, nursing and, now, sales work in women's shops) and the persistent rural practice of forcing young girls into marriage.
Does this mean Saudi Arabia's modernising urban women want to scrap the monarchy - the ultimate patriarchal system - and fast-forward to democracy? Quite the contrary.
''A revolution like the ones they had in Egypt and Tunisia would be the worst-case scenario here,'' Nafjian says. ''Most Saudis are conservative. A popular uprising here would make the [militant] Salafists in Egypt look like liberals. We would turn into Taliban.''
If she's right, the country's liberals, democrats and cultural modernisers are in the odd predicament of relying on an 87-year-old king and his male heirs for protection. The best-case scenario, she says, would be for a progressive wing of the royal family to rise to power once Abdullah is gone - men who would continue nudging the economy into the 21st century while keeping the nation's politics firmly rooted in the 7th. But there's no guarantee; the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Nayef, is a noted conservative - and an apparently healthy 78.
Meanwhile, Nafjian says, Saudi women will keep organising through private coffee circles and internet chatrooms. And they will welcome all the foreign attention they can get, as they did during the one-day driving protest in June.
''When foreigners make noise over women's rights, that's a good thing, because we're not allowed to,'' she says. ''The more embarrassing an issue is to the government, the more likely it is to be resolved.'' After all, they did get that change in the lingerie stores.