Last week, two words took over social media and the news: Free Britney. But what does this mean for Britney Spears and other women across the world who have had their freedom stripped away? Or those who never had any freedom in the first place?

Spears rose to stardom as a teenager. Fans adored her, and it seemed as though nothing could stop her. But things took a turn for the worse after a series of mental breakdowns and the eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Since her diagnosis and the start of her conservatorship in 2008, it seemed as though the singer and mother of two was getting back on track with the help of family and friends.

But the reality is that Spears has been quietly unhappy for years. A 2016 report highlighted her belief that her guardianship had become an oppressive tool to control her every move. In light of this and her most recent 2020 statement, it’s troubling that little progress has been made to help her.

Women like Britney

Conservatorships (or guardianships) are in place for people who lack the mental ability to look after themselves. They involve having a guardian placed in charge of your personal and financial affairs. But guardianships may not be as noble as they first sound.

There are countless women across the world under male guardianship from the moment they are born. There is, for instance, a legal male guardianship system currently in place in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The system, based on teachings in the Koran, leaves women with little or no freedom to live their lives as they choose.

Many women have tried to resist guardianships after encountering abusive behaviour from their fathers or husbands. Sadly, this often results in detainment or imprisonment for ‘disobedience’.

The activist Samar Badawi is one such case. Badawi tried to escape her home in 2008 after being physically abused by her father, managing to find help at a shelter. However, a judge ruled to imprison her after her father filed a disobedience charge. Fortunately, after spending seven months in prison, activists succeeded in having the charges dropped.

Sadly, not all women are able to escape. In 2017, Dina Ali Lasoom attempted to flee her home to escape an arranged marriage. Her uncles caught up with her in the Philippines and took her back to Saudi Arabia. Once there, she was imprisoned in a detention centre. Her actual whereabouts are still to be confirmed, but it’s suspected she was moved to a shelter with slightly better conditions. Her official status reads: ‘missing’.

These women’s stories are heartbreaking but are by no means singular instances. This is happening all across the world, right now. For this reason, the fight between Spears and her father is not dissimilar to that of other women fighting for their independence against patriarchal control.

Revelations that the singer is being forced to keep her IUD, take lithium, and keep performing against her will are a red alert that drastic change is needed to ensure women and their freedom are better protected.

Silence of the Spears

The people closest to Spears seem to have taken advantage of her vulnerability. Britney’s heart-wrenching plea to end her conservatorship raises the question: why has her family been so unresponsive?

Spears’ statement to the judge included claims that her family has done nothing to help her. She alleged that they stayed silent when she was forced to take a new drug and pay for a personalised rehabilitation programme against her will. Her father has responded that he doesn’t like to think of her as unhappy. However, Spears is adamant that he enjoys controlling her life, given that every decision made on her behalf has to go through him first.

And what of the rest of her family?

In 2019 her mother requested to be kept in the loop with regards to any medical affairs and decisions. Spears’ brother has in the past admitted that she has been unhappy with the arrangement and ‘always wanted to get out of it’. Despite such worrying claims however, nothing concrete has been done to help release Spears from the conservatorship. Ironically, there’s a whole movement being pushed by people who don’t know Spears personally, yet who seem more genuinely involved in her fight than her own family.

And if this were a man?

It’s difficult not to compare Spears’ case with that of Kanye West or Amanda Bynes, both of whom also have bipolar disorder. Interestingly, West has never been put under guardianship whereas Bynes has.

Similarly to Spears, Bynes also pushed back against her guardianship and was given back control over her financial affairs. However, her mother is still in charge of making healthcare decisions for her.

Of course, West, Bynes, and Spears are all distinct cases. But what they do have in common is the presence of bipolar disorder and a small fact that between the three of them, only the women were placed under a conservatorship.

And so we face an inevitable question: would Spears be under a conservatorship that’s lasted almost 13 years if she were a man? The fact that there are no countries in the world that exercise guardianships with the express aim of stripping men of their freedom provides a clue to the answer. And that is why, despite claims that we’ve made progress, our fight for women’s rights and equality is far from over.

There is hope that the high-profile nature of Spears’ case will pave the way for stricter rules on guardianships. And perhaps, in time, it will help women in other countries get one step closer to freedom.

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