RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – They still can't drive them, but now they can sell them.
Saudi women who want to buy a car can now go to an all-women showroom in Riyadh where, for the first time, other women will wait on them, help them choose the car that suits their lifestyle and answer questions about horsepower, carburetors and engines.
But neither the saleswomen nor the female buyers can take the car out for a test drive because women are still banned from driving here — though, surprisingly, they have for decades been allowed to own cars.
Almost half the cars in Saudi Arabia belong to women.
So touchy is the issue of women drivers that people who previously had called for dialogue on the topic have been mostly silenced by a wave of conservative condemnation.
Mindful of the sensitivities, the seven women at the spacious showroom insist their aim is not to advocate driving but to provide comfort for Saudi women who want to buy cars but do not like to go to dealerships run by men. In this conservative kingdom, the sexes are segregated in schools, restaurants and banks — making any interaction between salesmen and women customers awkward.
"I don't support women driving even if a permission is given for them to do so, because the society is not prepared for such a step," said Widad Merdad, a customer service representative at the showroom, which is privately owned and — like many in Saudi — offers a range of cars from various makers.
The introduction of saleswomen into the workforce may appear to be another victory for Saudi women who are banned from certain professions, such as the legal system.
But many women say that for every step forward women take, they suffer setbacks in other areas. Saudi writer Maram Mekkawi says the situation reminds her somewhat of Rosa Parks, the U.S. woman who made civil rights history in the 1950s by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.
What recalled Parks, Mekkawi said, is a recent incident where female doctors attending a conference in the same room as men — a rare event in the kingdom — were asked to leave the hall because one speaker refused to address a mixed group. The female doctors left, sparking outrage among many other women.
In a column in Al-Watan newspaper, Mekkawi said the women wouldn't have been kicked out had society not programmed them to accept such humiliation.
"I'm sorry to say that I have found in the Western world men and women with much more manly stands than ours here, where we claim a monopoly on values and principles," she wrote.
"Would I be blamed if I felt like a third-class or even 10th-class citizen?" added Mekkawi.
Because of the leverage that conservatives enjoy, some people worry that the new all-women showroom will meet the fate of a similar showroom forced to close shortly after it opened in Jiddah a few years ago.
A Saudi woman in public relations said anything that brings women closer to cars is a threat to conservatives, who view driving as opening the way for women's emancipation.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being harassed, said she was forced to cancel a women-only private viewing of new models of a popular car a year ago after religious police agents stormed the dealership hours before the reception. When told the reception aimed at introducing cars to women, the police retorted the cars could be taken to their homes for private viewing.
It's not only men who oppose women driving.
Ruqiya al-Duwaighry, in a letter sent to the opinion page of Al-Watan, wrote that driving "strips women of their femininity" and puts them in situations that might violate the ban on the sexes mixing.
Driving "may subject her to give up the veil or mix with strange men, such as workers at gas stations or security men at checkpoints," she wrote. "Women, by nature, cannot cope with such hard work."
But others say women should at least learn how to drive so they can cope in emergencies, especially in households that cannot afford drivers.
The Saudi Gazette recently told the story of a woman who drove her elderly father to an emergency room as he was having a heart attack. The paper said the woman wore the traditional red-and-white-checkered headdress that Saudi men wear so she wouldn't be stopped.
Another woman, also in male disguise, drove her husband who was suffering from a severe bout of the flu to hospital, the paper said.
At the showroom, where a half-dozen cars re parked on gleaming marble floors, Merdad said the employees take several weeks of training, but she said knowing how to drive is not a prerequisite.
The showroom, whose walls are blacked out so outsiders cannot see in, is attached to a dealership run by men with more than 100 cars on display. Women buyers can watch a live feed of that showroom on a flat-screen TV from a comfortable seating area.
If the women see a car they like, it is brought to the showroom through a door connecting it with the dealership. Once they make their choice, the buyers can apply for a loan.
"It's better than seeing the car in a catalogue," said Maha Mohsen, a marketing representative.