By Ariel Gold and Medea Benjamin
One week after Brittney Spears sent shockwaves across the world by relaying the conditions she has lived under for the past 13 years, a Los Angeles judge has denied her request to have her father removed from her conservatorship. Despite testifying that under her father’s care, she has not been allowed to marry, or make medical, professional, legal, or financial decisions for herself, the courts have yet to grant Brittney the freedom she is asking for.
The legal grounds for Brittney’s situation came about in 2007 when her life was quickly spiraling out of control because of mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse. After locking herself in a bathroom with her sons, she was placed under a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold.
In January 2008, shortly after Brittney’s 26th birthday, an LA judge issued an emergency order giving Brittney’s father Jamie Spears temporary conservatorship over his daughter. Nine months later, the judge made the conservatorship permanent.
“My dad and anyone involved in this conservatorship, including my management,” should be in jail,” Brittney told the courtroom on Wednesday, June 23rd as she described how her father was not permitting her to have an IUD birth control device removed from her body.
If any woman can relate to Brittney’s struggle to free herself from her father’s rule, it is Saudi women’s rights activist Samar Badawi.
Samar Badawi is a leading advocate for women in Saudi Arabia to gain their fundamental rights and abolish the country’s male guardianship system (a conservatorship that restricts the rights of all Saudi women). In 2008, after Samar escaped her father’s abuse by running off to a women’s shelter, her father charged her with disobedience under the country’s male guardianship system. After Samar missed some court dates, a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Like Brittney, Samar appealed to the courts to have her father removed from being her male guardian/conservator. Since her father had refused to allow her to marry her boyfriend, she accused her father of violating Islamic law by forcibly keeping her single. But, when she appeared for the trial in July 2010, she was taken into custody for the warrant against her.
Human rights activists and organizations worldwide campaigned for Samar, and on October 25, 2010, Governor Khalid bin Faisal ordered her release. An uncle on her father’s side was appointed her new male guardian.
But Samar continued to fight for women’s rights, and in July 2018, she was arrested as part of a crackdown by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) against women who had successfully campaigned for Saudi women to have the right to drive. Samar remained in prison until she was finally released on July 27, 2020 after serving her sentence.
While for Brittney, it is her father who has control over her life, in Saudi Arabia, the ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is, de facto, the ultimate conservator of all Saudi women.
Just as Brittney’s father has tried to portray himself as simply a fiercely loving, dedicated, and loyal father who rescued his daughter, so Saudi Arabia has been engaging in a public relations campaign to brand itself as a modernizing nation in the pursuit of women’s rights. To this end, on August 1, 2019, Saudi Arabia announced that it would abolish part of its male guardianship system, However, in Saudi Arabia, women still:
- need a male guardian;
- need their male guardian’s permission to marry;
- need to present justification to a male judge in order to be granted a divorce (men are permitted to divorce without justification or a court hearing);
- can be charged in court with disobedience to their male guardian or husband;
- can be imprisoned in detention facilities for disobedience. Once there, women must obtain the permission of their male guardian, husband, or sponsor to be released;
- face enormous discrimination regarding child custody and laws regarding unwed mothers. In court cases, a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s; women can lose custody for such conditions as not dressing modestly enough, for working full-time, or getting remarried;
- face abuse and violence, while men who abuse or even kill women face little to no legal repercussions.
Brittney’s case isn’t over yet and new court rulings are expected in the coming weeks and months. Her advocates say that now, more than ever, it is critical to keep campaigning for Brittney’s freedom. “This is so much bigger than just Britney,” said #FreeBritney activist Junior Olivas to Time Magazine, referring to the fact that there are about 1.5 million adults in the U.S.—mostly seniors and people with disabilities—under some form of conservatorship or guardianship. A look at Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women shows that Brittney’s case should also be looked at through an international lens. As we work to free Brittney, we should also work to free Samar Badawi and all Saudi women.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2014 she was arrested at the Cairo airport, beaten and deported.
Ariel Gold is the national co-director and Senior Middle East Policy Analyst with CODEPINK for Peace.