Two powerful documentaries broadcast this week highlighted how even women who seemingly have it all can have power taken away from them by those who should be there to support and protect them
As the invitations for events for International Women’s Day start to arrive in my inbox, it was very timely to see two must-watch documentaries focus on the desperate plight and powerlessness of two very different women from two very different cultures and backgrounds. One came from the Arab world and a family with untold riches, the other came from a poor family in Mississippi and generated her own wealth through talent and hard work. Yet their disturbing stories are essentially the same. The American ‘Princess of Pop’ Britney Spears, and Dubai royalty, Princess Latifa have both lost control over their lives and it’s their fathers that have taken that control away.
Britney Spears and the Conservatorship
Despite her wealth and talent, Britney has just failed in her latest attempt to extricate herself from a conservatorship that gives her father control over her financial and legal affairs, despite the fact she clearly doesn’t trust him and whatever relationship they may have had has completely broken down. Framing Britney Spears, on the Sky Documentaries Channel, was a hard watch that raised uncomfortable questions about the our celebrity culture and the way the media treats young female stars. A succession of interviewers – some of them women – asked pointedly sexual questions to the teenage Britney and blamed her for the break up of her relationship with Justin Timberlake. The feeding frenzy that followed, along with the attendant paparazzi who pursued her day and night, undoubtedly helped to drive Britney to breaking point. No wonder she attacked one of the photographers with an umbrella – giving him yet another valuable image to sell to the highest bidder.
It was poignant that it was left to her somewhat obsessive fans to lobby most passionately on her behalf. For all her success, Britney seemed isolated and impotent in the face of the courts and an army of lawyers that ironically she is funding, all of whom have a vested interest in perpetuating this situation. I can think of countless male rock stars who have gone off the rails in a variety of ways and none of them has become the subject of a conservatorship that Britney has now had to endure for ten years. The patriarchy may think she’s in need of protection but their actions are resulting in her being further exploited as her earnings are funnelled to a father who had had his own issues with alcohol and seemed to be largely absent during her childhood. Media attention that has caused Britney so much grief, now seems to be her only hope of generating enough pressure to get the conservatorship reversed. As her lawyer said ‘ the whole world is watching’.
Princess Latifa Held Captive
Princess Latifa’s friends are also relying on media attention to find out what has happened to her since she secretly sent them video messages claiming her father was holding her hostage. Justifiably, they fear for her life. Her horrifying story, featured in this week’s BBC Panorama programme, contains allegations of oppression, abuse and control by her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He is one of the richest heads of state in the world and one of the most powerful men in the Gulf, as the ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Whilst he rubs shoulders with the Queen and other world leaders, his daughter seems to lack the most basic of freedoms. Princess Latifa’s imprisonment follows her foiled attempt to escape from Dubai in a sailing boat in 2018. She vividly describes how she fought back as commandoes stormed the boat in the Indian Ocean, captured and drugged her. Her friends have allowed these messages to be broadcast because they are worried for her safety now that the phone seems to have been cut off. Princess Latifa was visibly petrified, pale and emotionally fragile as she cowered in a corner of the bathroom to record her message because it was the only room with a lock on. She described how she was being held under armed guard in a villa with bars on the windows and was never allowed outside for fresh air or sunlight. Her family claim that they carried out ‘a rescue mission’, that Princess Latifa is mentally ill and that she is safe in their ‘loving care’.
The footage has prompted global calls for the United Nations to investigate and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said it will soon question the UAE about the plight of Princess Latifa. The British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab has expressed concern and said that the UK will monitor any developments closely.
These are not new stories so it’s doubly shocking that neither of these high profile women are able to escape from their situation and both are partly relying on the outcry that these programmes will stir up to help them get the freedom to live as they choose. These are two cases we happen to know about. What chance does any woman in a similar situation have if she isn’t of interest to the media or doesn’t have access to it?