RIYADH, Apr 20: Casting a suspicious eye over a photo exhibition in Riyadh this week, Saudi men had a hard time believing their womenfolk could have posed as the models.
Beautiful and flaunting it, the veiled women stared teasingly from behind nets, steering wheels, mirrors and diving visors -- showing only the bits of their faces allowed for public display by strict social customs.
Hinting at lifestyles proscribed by Saudi Arabia's austere Wahhabi form of Islam, the pictures are above board, yet subversive.
''They are all Saudis. These are actual Saudi women who are Petroleum engineers, computer experts and scuba divers,'' photographer Manal al Dowayan said after British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw opened the exhibition on Tuesday night.
''I don't know how men would say they are not Saudis. Maybe they think that women wouldn't pose in front of the camera, that women might be shy of the camera. But they have no idea,'' she told Reuters in an interview.
In some of the black-and-white prints only the eyes show.
Others show women dressed as nurses or building workers, but with heavy gold jewellery and headscarves.
The photographs touch on some of the reform issues that have gripped conservative Saudi Arabia since King Abdullah came to power last year, raising hopes that he could help loosen stifling religious mores in society.
Saudi women must wear hair- or face-covering veils in public, cannot mix with unrelated men and are banned from driving, according to rules laid down by Wahhabi clerics.
OPTIMISM ''I am very optimistic, this is a time of hope in the kingdom.
Things that have been happening under King Abdullah are amazing,'' said Dowayan, who hails from the relatively relaxed Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on the Gulf.
''We are now in the point of dialogue, sharing opinions and then it will filter down to change,'' she added.
The Saudi men perusing Dowayan's work, displayed as part of a wider exhibition by British Muslims showing how British Muslims live, were also suspicious of Dowayan's motives.
''Is that meant to form a (Christian) cross?'' asked one, pointing to a photo of a woman's bare tattooed arm clasping the inside of a steering wheel.
A Saudi journalist said the half-revealed, half-hidden images of the women, as well as the hints at the driving issue, offered a ''dark impression'' of Saudi womanhood.
But Dowayan, a business systems analyst with state oil firm Saudi Aramco, said the opposite was her intention.
''Some people say that there's a sense of darkness, but I think there is optimism because here I am showing my ideas in Riyadh and the obstacles that I face as a woman just getting around,'' she said, adding dozens of women wanted to take part.
''The photo shoots were a discussion between me and the models.
If you see their eyes in the photos -- I told them just to think about the concept we had discussed and I got some amazing results.'' REUTERS