Unlike Britney, many women remain unfree

image by Like_the_Grand_Canyon

There has been a lot of media coverage about the plight of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021. Yet, the collective hand wringing over this issue overlooks the barriers that many women still face in the ‘west’. 

Clearly, the vast majority of women (and to a certain extent girls) in ‘western’ states can exercise certain core human rights, including the right to have an education, own property and have money in their own right. However, women with disabilities or long-term health conditions are often denied the right to make their own decisions over many aspects of their life, such as healthcare, managing their finances and reproductive rights. This is typically justified as being in the best interests of the woman, who needs to be taken care of and therefore cannot be trusted to make her own decisions.  

The most high-profile example of this is the ongoing legal case in California regarding Britney Spears’ conservatorship, which saw her father Jamie granted the power to control both financial and personal aspects of her life. It was first set up following a period when her behaviour was deemed erratic (such as shaving her head and assaulting a photographer), culminating in two involuntary stays in a psychiatric facility. All aspects of her life are monitored and tracked by others, from coffee purchases to phone calls, with recent revelations that her bedroom was bugged and personal phone calls, had been covertly recorded. Her father was paid $16,000pm (adding up to an eyewatering $2.4million since the conservatorship was set up in 2008) while also benefiting financially from her ticket and merchandising sales. This was characterised as a “hybrid business model” by former co-conservatory Andrew Wallet. While Jamie has now been removed as conservator, Britney’s conservatorship continued until it was finally terminated on 12 November 2021. She has since spoken of her joy at being able to do “little things” such as withdraw her own money from an ATM.

Would a conservatorship have been set up for Britney if she had been a man? We have seen many instances of male celebrities behaving erratically and dangerously (often due to being under the influence of drugs or other substances) but they never face such drastic measures. It is also deeply unsettling that Britney was never assessed for post-natal depression or psychosis in the run up to her conservatorship been putting into place. As she was divorced, her father (from whom she was largely estranged previously) was the one who stepped in to manage her affairs. She had also just been in a custody battle for her children, and so was in a very vulnerable position. Conservatorship is seen as a final option, with other ways to enable disabled people retain some control over their lives and support them to make their own decisions. Why were these not explored for Britney? What would be seen as coercive control for women without disabilities is viewed as being caring and looking out for the interests of disabled woman. Going forward, Britney faces the prospect of her every decision being scrutinised by a global audience– when she was legally allowed to drive again in October she said that she was “fearful of doing something wrong” and was chased by paparazzi “like they want me to do something crazy”.

Nevertheless, it was ironic that on the same day in June 2021 Britney’s petition for her father to be removed from the conservatorship was denied, while disgraced comedian Bill Cosby was released from prison after his conviction for sexual assault was overturned due to a legal technicality. Is it the case that female voices are ignored and male voices given more prominence? Did Jamie Spears’ words have more weight than Britney’s, and Cosby’s non-prosecution deal with a previous (male) prosecutor more important than justice for his female victims? Cosby has not apologised for his actions, never acknowledged any wrongdoing and previously denied parole because he refused to participate in sex offender programmes while in prison.   

It is therefore imperative when we consider the shocking changes to the lives of women in Afghanistan that we do not forget the way many disabled women, and their ability to be members of society, have also been controlled by men. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

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