Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum is a 35 year old woman from Dubai. She is the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. When she was 16, she gathered a handful of belongings and headed to the Oman border, seeking to escape from what may be one of the most draconian patriarchies in the world. She was inspired by the attempted escape of her sister, Shamsa, who tried to run away while the family vacationed in England and has not been seen since her recapture months later. Stopped at the border, Latifa was returned to her father, who put her in a prison cell for three years and four months, subjecting her to solitary confinement and other forms of torture. Allowed out if she promised to be a good girl, she entertained herself by taking up skydiving, martial arts, diving, and other forms of leisure generally reserved for the top 1%.
By 2011, she is actively planning her next escape attempt, enlisting the help of a French mercenary and Finnish feminist to attempt escape by sea. She records a video message nearly 40 minutes long, documenting the torture she and her family have endured. Under armed guard, her sister is drugged and monitored 24/7. They are both confined. Latifa lives in a mansion by the sea. She can buy all the manicures and outfits she wants, but needs special permission from her father to leave town. Latifa sits at the top of the food chain in a country where untold numbers of migrant laborers die each year, where laws are selectively enforced to further the aims of the minority ruling class under coercion of globalized capital. Latifa wants to decide for her own where she will go in life, but her yacht is stopped off the coast of India, boarded by Indian special forces, and she is returned to Dubai. She later appears in proof-of-life photos under the watchful eye of a UN Representative (who later decries being used as a prop) published by her father’s government. She is lithium bloated and dead-eyed. “Especially if you’re a female,” she says in the video address taken before her previous escape, “your life is so disposable.”
And indeed, even if she is a princess, and entitled to so much luxury and wealth, even if she sits on top of the food chain, she is all-but forgotten. Her father loves horses, and is responsible for oh-so-many jobs in Kentucky, where he breeds and races his horses. Even more importantly, he is the ruler of a city-state that functions as an entry-point for all sorts of financial, intelligence, military and other imperial interests. Perhaps she attempted her first escape in 2002 buoyed by the Western discussion of those women in the Middle East, the Muslim women held under the brutal boot of Daddy and dear husband, the women lacerated by their mothers and forced behind a veil of gauze. Perhaps, she figured, they will help me and they will help my sister.
So what is the reason for her continued incarceration?
Whether or not you were a fan of Britney Spears, for women of a certain age she was certainly influential on our societal upbringing in the United States. As American as apple pie/Coca-Cola, she was a white trash girl from the south plucked gee-golly straight from the Mickey Mouse Club, primped and waxed and put in a short skirt to show how in this era, jail bait’s main selling point would be something along the lines of, aww, isn’t that cute, she thinks she has agency.
We would do her a disservice by erasing her immense natural talent and hearty work ethic. Trained since the age of 3 to be a star, Spears is indeed a creative genius. A talented choreographer, she takes pride in her work, and it shows. At the height of her career, at perhaps 20 years old, she was widely considered the most beloved and famous teen pop star in the world.
But we cannot forget that in the United States, girlchild pop stars are destined for the meat grinder. Her decline begins roughly after her marriage to an uncomfortably smarmy back-up dancer who’d allegedly left his pregnant girlfriend (their second child) for a chance at fame. At a time when Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are making waves by appearing in porn, when fellow girlchild pop star Lindsay Lohan is having her genitals photographed by paparazzi, Britney Spears suffers a nervous breakdown. The drug use and drinking have caught up with her, and her children have been taken away. Her favorite aunt dies, and two months later she is photographed shaving her head. She is now 25, and her engagement rate is waning.
In 2008, Hilary Clinton wages an unsuccessful bid for President of the United States. Her candidacy is framed as (white) women breaking the ultimate glass ceiling. Her generation had fought hard for it, after all, slogging through toxic workplaces, shrugging off their degradation, doing it all by hiring a nanny, and turning on their juniors when unfaithful husbands demanded they do so. In this same year, at the age of 26, Britney Spears – worth $60 million dollars – is judged by a court of law to be a child. She is put under conservatorship. Her aloof father stepping in to take control of her person and finances. The jackals making a living by tearing her to pieces in public back off. This is no fun! And besides, Daddy has stepped in.
Do you ever wonder what happened to the Girls Gone Wild? I met my first one in my teens. She’d ducked a bid with the Army by dropping out of college three credits shy of a degree. Picked up a heroin habit, as so many did where I’m from during those fraught early aughts, and turned to porn for relief. Flew out to California, the whole nine yards. Assumed a stage name and was the talk of the town. Her first love ran across her first VHS while unloading that month’s shipment and rented it, getting high and watching it on loop for 12 hours. I don’t quite know what became of her. The last time I saw her, she was lithium bloated, allegedly clean. Had a little girl with her. Her face was puffy and pink, perpetually swollen, but on that VHS cover she is forever young, a coy grin on her face, her private parts obscured by clip-art flowers.
I knew a lot of girls like this at some point in my younger life. The one who took a job at a brothel when they promised to pay her in coke. The one who smoked meth at the strip club and randomly tried to strangle strangers. We were the first generation of girls subjected to broadband pornography, played for laughs while the boys forced us to watch a girl just a few years older be smacked around, mouth bloodied, choke on a cock and throw up on herself. How so many of them learned to jack off. Streaking mascara, braces mangled. Our mothers had Cheryl Tiegs and we would have Jenni Lee. Our own 21st century witch hunt, this generation’s auto-da-fé.
So what did Britney Spears have to do with all this – where did she fit in? Carted off to Vegas after being declared forever young, she fades away. Her late twenties and thirties drift by, until suddenly, with a jolt, everyone realizes she’s about to turn forty. She is sending secret messages crying for help. The jackals have found a vein! All those who profited from her madness, her vulnerability, send messages of saccharine-solidarity. Does she want them back? Chafing under Daddy, she craves the self-determination that always promised to her by late stage capitalism, liberal feminism, but never delivered. A whole youth squandered by laying golden eggs for advertisers. They offered up her independent, fierce sexual prowess, her talent, her sultry kohl lined-eyes as product. The boys love a good show, but when she comes back around at 39 – lithium-bloated, puffy and pink, perpetually swollen – they are nowhere to be found.
Scene: a bar on 23rd street in Manhattan – Summer 2018
For the first time, the bar is full of women, sullen and silent over their drinks. They are of all ages, all races, all backgrounds, and all their eyes are locked on the television screen. They are watching a woman being humiliated. She is white. She is educated. She is wealthy. She is talented. She is crying. She is scared. They are undressing her on television. She is being stripped down to the deepest question that lurks in the hearts of all women. She is using big fancy professional words like norepinephrine and epinephrine and hippocampus. But what she is really saying is that I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys.
In a racist world, the white woman is the most precious prize, but only if she is obedient. The ones gone wild are carted off to mental hospitals, underground tunnels, addiction and suicide, conservatorship, and flayed alive on live television. A few are hand-picked each generation to update Grimm’s Fairy Tale, publicly dragged in front of an audience to do penance for their crimes. They are enjoyed in their youth, like small plums, but the pure joy that follows their inevitable decline is a sort of spiritual ecstasy. The barely concealed sexual pleasure of a Supreme Court nominee given another go at the bitch. His wife sitting behind, her face puffy, swollen and sagging, eyes mournful.
A few years ago I was asked to give a talk on women’s liberation. It was tepid and sad, forced and uncomfortable for me. At the conclusion, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen burst into tears. “I’m about to turn 40,” she told me. “I’m not used to being invisible.”
It’s a suspicion that creeps up on us. Told that all this is in the past now, that a woman needs neither man nor child of her own to be valued by society, hitting the brick wall of reality is not only brutal, but humiliating. How could I have been so stupid?
After I’ve lied and told the whole world “I’m OK, and I’m happy.” It’s a lie. I thought I just maybe I said that enough maybe I might become happy. Because I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it till you make it.Britney Spears, 6/24/21
My loneliness is killing me
I must confess I still believe
When I’m not with you, I lose my mind
Give me a sign
The Britney Spears disclosure deemed “most shocking” was that her conservatorship has refused her the right to have her IUD removed and to marry. This was the revelation that allegedly weighed most heavy on public sentiment. Here was Britney, our Britney, begging a judge to allow another man legal right to her body and future, begging a judge to let her bear at least one more child before she turned 40, that magic age where women risk becoming invisible.
Her highly-recognizable voice was still girlish, but on Wednesday is was strong, emotional and so rapid-fire that it was tough sometimes to understand her words.PICTURE EXCLUSIVE: Bikini-clad Britney Spears enjoys a much-needed break as she cosies up to muscle-baring beau Sam Asghari in Hawaii… amid bombshell conservatorship battle with her father, Daily Mail, 6/29/21