VATICAN CITY (AFP) - As Roman Catholic cardinals prepare a secret conclave in the Vatican to choose a new pope, the only woman seen taking part in the preparations has been the seamstress sewing the ceremonial tablecloths.
The most important decision in the life of the Church is being taken with one half of the Catholic community either looking on or playing an auxiliary role as the male hierarchy deliberates.
"Not hearing the opinions of half of the world is like a slap in the face," said Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who was excommunicated by the Vatican after her unofficial ordination as a female priest.
The American said the idea that only men should decide on the next pope who will rule over both men and women was "a mockery".
Ms Sevre-Duszynska was quickly detained by police for demonstrating at the Vatican in her ceremonial robes, with police saying they wanted to check that she had the "right to wear those vestments".
Benedict XVI cracked down on liberal, "feminist" nuns, but the hope among campaigners now is that the next pope could open the way to dialogue on the role of women in the Church - and possibly even tackle the hot-button issue of women priests.
Vatican observers say that of the 115 cardinal electors who may become pope, none are likely to overturn centuries of ingrained gender bias in the Church, which insists women cannot be priests because Jesus Christ's apostles were all men.
Neither can they be popes: according to legend, a female pope was elected in the Middle Ages, but was caught out when she gave birth.
Once exposed, "Pope Joan" was apparently bound by her feet to a horse tail by outraged cardinals and dragged to death through the streets of Rome.
Campaigners say modern-day scandals - from clerical sex abuse to accusations of fraud at the Vatican bank and bickering in the government - could be tackled by revolutionising the mediaeval institution and opening its doors to women.
"We need structural reforms across the board. Women can help bring greater transparency," said theologian Cristiana Simonelli.
"Their exclusion makes it doubly hard, for example, for the Church to address questions of sexuality and abuse," she said.
The conclave to elect Benedict's successor will meet from Tuesday and many say a voice for women within the Church should be top of the cardinals' list.
"I feel sorry for the cardinals," said Christine Anderson of the Faith and Praxis association.
"There must be good men among them but it will be hard for them to make their voices heard within that closed-minded institution," she said.
"The Vatican is not in touch with reality. It reprimands so-called radical nuns for daring to join the debate on political and social issues but it doesn't realise we have more faith in our little fingers than them," she added.
Last year, the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was rebuked for straying too far from Catholic doctrine, and the man tapped to haul them into line was stripped of his post for attempting to reconcile with them.
Benedict also denounced Austrian priests who had launched the Pfarrer (Priest) Initiative in 2006 which calls for the clergy to be opened to women to relieve a growing shortages of priests in the increasingly secularised West.
Within the Vatican, around 20 per cent of employees are women - secretaries, restorers, archaeologists, journalists - and they earn the same as their male counterparts according to Gudrun Sailer, author of a book on Vatican women.
Under Benedict's reign, the Vatican's official daily L'Osservatore Romano launched a monthly insert entitled "Women, Church, World", and staff writer Lucetta Scaraffia says it debates the unrecognised role of women in the Roman Catholic Church.
"But the Vatican's highest offices are out of reach, because canonical law means only those who have been ordained can hold them. It's not so much a glass ceiling for women in the Vatican, as a reinforced concrete one," Ms Sailer said.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the only women involved in the historic ceremony to elect a new pope "are there to serve the cardinals".
Ms Sevre-Duszynska and fellow female priests have said they want to set off pink flares at the Vatican when the white smoke appears over the Sistine Chapel to signal that a new pope has been elected in a "Pink Smoke" protest.
"The current conclave system remains an 'old boys club'," said Erin Saiz Hanna, head of the Women's Ordination Conference, headquartered in Washington.
"The Vatican's decisions affect a huge amount of women around the globe. It's time they agreed to dialogue with us, to let us speak," she said.