Women of Saudi Arabia should be celebrating. The Crown Prince Sultan Abdel Aziz has recently announced that he may at last allow them to drive their own cars. But there's a catch. He'll only lift the ban if their husbands, fathers and brothers agree. It's not surprising that the arbiters of the decision will be men. This is the land where women can't even go out without a male escort; a daughter can be married against her will; a father can seize custody of his children and prevent their mother from ever seeing them again. Carmen bin Laden, in her book Inside the Kingdom, writes: "I rarely met a Saudi woman who was not afraid of her husband... Women in Saudi Arabia must live in obedience, in isolation, and in the fear that they may be cast out and summarily divorced."

Religious anti-vice squads will harass and arrest a woman for allowing a single tendril of hair to creep from her burkha, with lashings as routine punishments for immodesty. In March 2002 in Mecca they prevented young teenage schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing their head coverings. At least 14 died in the fire.

So it may appear eccentric to rail at such a comparatively trivial matter as the ban on driving. But that's not how it seems to the women who, 15 years ago, held a mass demonstration demanding the right to drive, having seen American women GIs driving tanks and ambulances during the first Gulf war. After the protest they were castigated as whores, suspended from jobs, had passports confiscated and overnight became pariahs.

Last December they came together again to commemorate that uprising and to wonder at how little progress they had made.

"It was never about driving – it's just a symbol," according to businesswoman Aisha al-Mane, who received death threats after her public display of driving, and was forced to leave her home and job in Riyadh. "It's about female empowerment. Women need incomes, they need jobs, and they need a way to get to those jobs."

But there's also something particularly petty and vicious about this prohibition. It denies women the opportunity to experience the sheer joy of freewheeling. It's an exhilaration poignantly captured by the Iranian director Marzieh Meshkini in her 2001 film The Day I Became A Woman. A man on horseback is galloping furiously after his wife, who against his wishes is participating in an all-female cycling race. The image of a posse of black-cloaked women, pedalling along a heat-baked coastal path, chadors billowing behind them in an ecstasy of speed, freedom and escape is a potent symbol of all that is forbidden to women by the institutionalised misogyny of extreme Muslim regimes.

But fear of women on wheels isn't confined to Islam. It's universal, and manifests itself afresh with every new opportunity for mobility and independence. The defiant heroine of Meshkini's film is challenging a set of attitudes not that dissimilar from those voiced in Britain in the 1880s, when the introduction of the bicycle prompted a huge controversy about whether it was safe or proper for women to cycle. The writer Maria E Ward advocated the bicycle as a force for education, "creating the desire for progress, the preference for what is better, the striving for the best, broadening the intelligence and intensifying love of home and country."

And for the early feminists, the bicycle meant liberation. Ethel Smythe, the composer whose March of the Women became the suffragette anthem, was one of the first to take to it. Another early adopter was the children's writer and Fabian freethinker E Nesbitt who would hurtle round the streets of Deptford in her bloomers, hair a-bob, no doubt with one of her beloved cigars dangling between her scarlet-rouged lips.

These women were defying a barrage of critics who maintained that bicycle riding threatened women's health, morals and reputation. It would give too much opportunity for young men and women to be alone together; it could harm women's reproductive systems; it invited immodest clothing; some even warned that tilting the saddle would encourage masturbation.

But such anxieties were nothing compared with the deep antagonism to women drivers that accompanied the arrival of the motor car. Right from the start, in America as much as in Britain, there was heated speculation about whether they were capable of mastering auto technology and whether they would be safe travelling alone. Some argued that women were temperamentally unsuited to driving; they wouldn't be able to handle speed so should be restricted to the slower electric car.

These objections gradually faded away – but mistrust of women drivers never has. Male scorn for women drivers is so widespread, so virulent, that you can't help feeling that there are some men, if not the majority, who would like to do as the Saudis do and just ban them. And the real reason for this hostility is that a woman at the wheel isn't just a threat, but a full-on sexual invasion.

The automobile has, over the past century, uniquely achieved the status of a dual erotic signifier. On the one hand it's an extension of male genitalia with all the power and vulnerability that that implies. On the other, it symbolises the woman who is to be driven into submission.

The legendary failure of the Ford Edsel, launched in the mid-1950s, was widely attributed to the fact that its vertical grille resembled a vagina. In Sex, Drink and Fast Cars the style expert Stephen Bayley wonders why this should be so, given that the Jaguar E Type's success relied so heavily on the very similarity its profile had to the male organ.

But he shouldn't really have been so surprised. The whole conceit of the car as both male power and feminine allure is lost if crude images of raw female sexuality are allowed to intrude.

Hence all the years of Earls Court Motor Shows with semi-naked women draped over large shiny new cars; hence the Pirelli tyre calendar – still the most coveted annual collection of nude pin-ups. No wonder the blues is redolent with invitations to ride me, drive me, be my chauffeur and take me all the way.

Now there's a whole TV channel making the same connection. Nose to nose with used cars and racing programmes in the schedules of Men and Motors you'll find erotic reality TV shows, documentaries about adult entertainment and sexual fetishes, films of girls on beaches lifting their wet T-shirts.

Sex and motors go together like football and lager. Which explains why middle-aged men so often choose souped-up convertibles with enormous front engines, and why, when confronted by a speeding road rager, a woman driver will so often have to resort to speculating unkindly on his probable performance between the sheets.

Countless screen sex symbols have been defined by their motors. Sam Malone from Cheers calls his Corvette his 'babe magnet'. James Dean went to his glamorous death in a Porsche with the words 'Little Bastard' inscribed on the back.

The ultimate phallic force, though, has to be James Bond's series of action cars complete with fine lines, steely performance and myriad gadgets. In The Living Daylights, for example, the Aston Martin Volante boasted bullet proof glass, a cockpit-style dashboard, automatic missiles in the headlamps, laser beam cutter on the bumper, a hinged number plate concealing a rocket jet propulsion unit and automatically protruding skis for driving on ice.

It's enough to make any girl melt into submission. But let's not forget that the car doesn't just attract women – it is the perfect woman: gorgeous, full of tricks, great to be seen with and utterly, totally in the thrall of the driver.

Meanwhile what are the screen role models for women drivers? Ditzy housewife Lucille Ball systematically wrecking the family saloon; pukka but still ditzy Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, smashing every vehicle in her wake with girlish abandon; Annie Hall, jerking a traumatised Woody Allen through the back streets of New York, screeching into a parking space just askew enough for him to reassure her: "It's okay, I can walk to the kerb from here."

Oh – and, of course, Thelma and Louise. True, their car was their escape, their freedom and their destiny. But things hardly went well. In the end the two road buddies suffered the fate of any woman riding bareback. Think Boadicea, St Joan, Lady Godiva, Amelia Earheart – all were transgressive and had to be destroyed.

The British public is far more comfortable with the wholesome anti-heroine Maureen Reece of Driving School fame, who had the nation in stitches week after week with her endless failure to grasp even the rudiments of car management.

Zoo magazine, the weekly cathedral to laddishness, chose to display female inferiority recently by conducting a random vox pop asking girls to name parts of a car. Only one got close – and how was she to know they don't make carburettors any more? She was probably recalling the woman who insisted that she'd got water in hers which was why it wouldn't start. When her mystified husband, aware that she didn't even know where the petrol went, asked where she'd left the vehicle, she confessed: "In the duck pond."

Women, it has to be admitted, don't exactly go out of their way to challenge the stereotype. Most of us don't even know how to change a wheel. Those who sign up to car maintenance classes, by their own admission, do so to meet hunky guys who can wield a manly jack and put a tiger in their tank. Too many of us find it easier to navigate holding the map upside down, and even more have the regrettable habit of applying mascara at traffic lights.

Few females subscribe to motoring magazines. Still fewer need to be left alone with a crate of Fosters to watch Formula One. Nor are we prone to imitate with our throats the sound of a Ferrari engine roaring from nought to 60 in three seconds. Indeed, many of us are more interested in braking than accelerating.

It's true that women tend to be unimpressed by double-stage turbocharging or machined swirl chambers, and rarely inquire about thunder box exhausts and shiny mag-alloys. We're more likely to look for air bags than air suspension, double buggy capacity rather than double overhead camshafts.

And yet, even though most don't know their rear axel from their electronic water gauge, it turns out that women are far, far better drivers than men. The women's insurance company Sheilas' Wheels estimates that 97 per cent of all dangerous driving convictions, 94 per cent of all car accidents involving death or bodily harm, 89 per cent of all drink and drug driving convictions, 85 per cent of all careless driving convictions and 83 per cent of all speeding convictions are down to male drivers.

And gradually advertisers have begun to wake up to the fact that not only are 45 per cent of all UK drivers women – they're also increasingly buying their own cars. Enter Nicole and Papa, stars of a massively successful series of commercials in which Nicole asserts her independence with her Renault Clio. Then came the 'Changes' ad in which Paula Hamilton threw out a fur coat and pearl necklace along with the discarded boyfriend and opted instead for the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Currently, in a parody of The Graduate, a troubled bride flees from the altar – into the arms of her voice-controlled Ford Fiesta waiting for her outside the church.

All three devices are something of a male fantasy of a female fantasy. Women get to choose the car rather than the boyfriend – but just look at the models they end up with: uniformly compact, safe and reliable. They're hardly James Bond, let's face it. But then, unlike men, women don't necessarily invest their sexual pride in their vehicle. Maybe they like their men fast and dangerous – and cars that won't let them down.

Still, it's a choice that remains unimaginable for the women of Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince may claim to believe that the day will come when women will drive – but it's something of an empty promise. Men just don't want to allow women that degree of independence. They claim that it's not safe for women to be exposed to the Kingdom's appalling roads and reckless male drivers.

But that's just an excuse, according to Rowa al-Saleh, a graduate medical student. "How many times has the prospect of women driving in Saudi Arabia been dangled before our eyes getting our hopes up with no actual development? Has anything been done toward women driving, such as awareness campaigns for men? Has the traffic department improved the standard of driving on the streets, or have Saudi men been prepared toward such a move? None of this has happened."

So in a country made rich by its massive oil reserves, half the population has never known the thrill of an engine sparking into life, the freedom that their richest resource can bring. Let's just hope that Saudi women do get behind the wheel before that vast national well runs dry. Until then, all they can do, like Lucy Jordan in Marianne Faithfull's wistful lament, is stay at home and dream of one day riding through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in their hair.