(This story was first published on 6 July 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives in light of Jamie Spears being suspended from his 13-year role as conservator of his daughter Britney Spears on 30 September.)
In 1999, I bought Britney’s first album Baby One More Time from a small music store in Ooty. I played it on my Walkman, rewinding and fast-forwarding till I memorised all the lyrics, and the melody echoed in my mind long after my batteries died. I turned thirteen that year and watching a young woman – about five years older than I was – be so sexually confident, beautiful, and independent was a revelation.
That year, in Class 9, I couldn’t imagine a life like that. I knew fully well that my parents would have a say in what kind of a future I had until I was old enough to marry. Making independent choices on my own would involve long, tedious arguments.
Then nine years after that album released, news broke that Britney had been placed under a conservatorship managed (now solely) by her father, Jamie Spears, because of a public meltdown.
Spears' Tragedy Isn't a New Story
In recent years, we’ve learned what this arrangement still means for Spears: at 39, she has no control over her personal or professional life, a restricted number of visitors, forced contraception, she even requires her father’s permission to remarry.
But to me, the Britney Spears saga is not a new story. It is the story of systemic socio-economic abuse by family; one that is all too familiar in India. It is the story of begging for permission, asking for the freedom to make choices, and trying to navigate a family system that is oppressive and unsupportive.
In the United States, an adult person is appointed a conservator – or a legal guardian – to overlook their personal, physical and financial matters when that person is deemed unfit to care for themselves. It is hard to challenge in court. In India, thankfully, legal guardianship for adults with disabilities is still a matter that can be challenged in courts.
Spears’ experience of life under a conservatorship has raised the global debate on sexism, misogyny, and abuse of power by families, a notch higher. It has also laid bare an entire ecosystem that enabled such abuse. It’s clear, now more than ever, that the public struggle of a woman to regain control of her own life has so many personal parallels to women who face violence in India, and what harm it does when it is brushed off as a ‘family matter’.
India is No Stranger to Toxic Family Environments
Toxic family environments are hard to discuss openly in India. Families are multi-generational and bound by traditions and caste and religious beliefs that no matter what legal progress is made at the national level; the family remains integral in pushing societal progress. So revered is the system that most Indians cannot discern a healthy family from a toxic, dysfunctional one.
A toxic family environment involves authoritarian parental figures, the threat of physical violence against children – slapping, hitting, spanking, beating – in the name of discipline, compliance with family rules and rituals without any concern for independent thought, and living in the fear of emotional outbursts.
Sounds familiar? It’s because this is the kind of family dynamic that we experience and glorify. These are the families that we relate to in our movies, that we are taught to romanticise, and aspire to become a part of. So, it should be no surprise that this collective inability to identify toxic behaviour – or our refusal to recognise abuse in our own families – is a big barrier to pursuing the kind of change we want in our society.
In light of the recent deaths of three young women in Kerala, let’s take the issue of domestic violence and dowry harassment in India, a common form of abuse that extends from a toxic family environment.
One in three women face spousal abuse in our country but only one in ten seek help for it. Why? Because without the support of their own families or the families they are married into, women are frequently infantilised and shunned by a patriarchal judicial system.
Examples of Familial Abuse Are Rampant
All around, there are clear examples of how familial abuse affects young women in Indian society despite being full citizens under the law. And like Spears, in widely known cases, families almost always try to restrict independent decision making.
In the Hadiya case, where an adult woman of her own conscience married a man of her choice, the Kerala High Court initially annulled her marriage and gave her parents custody of her citing that ‘a girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways.’ By the time the Supreme court intervened, Hadiya had been confined to her father’s home, harassed, and threatened by her family.
In 2006, when Lata Singh, a 27-year-old woman from Lucknow, married a man of her choice, her brothers harassed her and her new family until the Supreme Court intervened and established her right as a citizen.
But these cases aren’t exceptional. Hundreds of thousands of Indian men and women take their lives, tolerate abusive home environments, and get through the day without support despite being under no form of legal guardianship.
But, is There Still Hope for India?
In many countries, the extent to which familial abuse is tolerated is shocking.
In Russia, the government views all violence within the home as a ‘family matter’ and refuses to intervene. In China, until 2016, when the country passed its first ever national law on domestic violence, emotional and physical abuse at home was seen as a ‘private matter’.
But as a functioning democracy, India has the tools in place to start a new conversation about how toxic families affect our day to day lives — and this means there is hope for Indian men and women.
Britney Spears’s tragedy isn’t hers alone, it’s ours.
(Meera Vijayann is an independent journalist covering gender and social entrepreneurship. She is based in Seattle, USA and tweets @meeravijayann. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)