March 3, 2021, The Times
Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum’s plaintive cries from her captivity are heart-rending. Here is a young woman who has been locked up by her father, the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Rapunzel may be eating off gold plates in her villa jail but she can’t escape.
In her recent video she sounded desperate, and her family insinuate she is mad. The 35-year-old had tried to flee but was kidnapped by armed commandos. Her sister Shamsa “disappeared” in a similar snatch two decades earlier.
Of course, we tell ourselves, this could never happen in the West. Except that watching the documentary Framing Britney Spears, it didn’t feel dissimilar. Since 2007, following a very public breakdown, all Spears’s assets of $60 million, her career and medical information have been controlled by her father, even after the singer went to court last year in an attempt to end the arrangement. She refused to sing in her gilded cage so was first called manipulative, then insane.
The documentary showed a young woman who had been stripped of her freedom by western society, her father and the media. After what she endured in the public eye as a sexualised child star, it’s amazing she is still standing.
Male interviewers would joke with the polite, eager-to-please teenager about the “cheap slutty girl who put out” and proposition her on air. Meanwhile Justin Timberlake was lauded when he boasted about taking her virginity. To his credit, he has now said he feels guilty that he benefited “from a system that condones misogyny”, but few others have apologised for their part in this young mother’s descent into a psychiatric hospital.
It’s bizarre that women are still hounded, perhaps even more now than they were at the turn of the century, before smartphones. Carrie Symonds, whatever you think of her politics or her fiancé, is also being portrayed as a meddling witch. She is the latest in a long line of women in No 10 who have been vilified for living with a prime minister. I thought after Cherie Booth was forced to apologise for trying to juggle all the balls and dropping one that the situation might improve.
Now Symonds has added Marie Antoinette to her titles of Lady Macbeth and Anne Boleyn because she wants to repaper the PM’s Downing Street flat in the designer Lulu Lytle’s fern scrolling wallpaper. But it’s her fiancé who should be dunked if he is appealing for charity to pay for their renovations.
Symonds has had to cope with a now easily recognisable cycle of abuse. It started with the seemingly innocent celebration of geisha-like pictures of her in prairie dresses and highlighted tresses, before moving rapidly to the implication, drawing on usually disgruntled male sources, that she was manipulative and hysterical, the power behind the throne who couldn’t control her temper or her dog.
After that she was described as Princess Nut Nut. Now she is being cast as fighting other women, having called the sitting room bequeathed by Theresa May a “John Lewis furniture nightmare”, though I can’t see the former prime minister minding that.
You could say this young mother has exploited her own position by posting perfect photographs of herself on Instagram but I wonder whether this is just a way of trying to take back some control in an increasingly hostile, obsessively scrutinised world. Mrs May did the same with her leather trousers; if they were going to compare her pins to Nicola Sturgeon’s then she might as well get in first.
Being a prime minister’s partner doesn’t automatically make someone a target: Denis Thatcher and Philip May were always seen as benign, smiling figures. But women in the public eye just aren’t treated in the same way as men. Every woman I interview, from the council clerk Jackie Weaver to ministers and actresses, has had experience of abusive trolls and sexist keyboard warriors, rape and death threats. Men seem to want to watch them self-destruct. Some use humour to tackle the misogynist online bullies, others quietly retire.
I once met Monica Lewinsky, a dignified, intelligent woman, and felt horrified at how journalists and commentators had traduced her while lauding Bill and Hillary Clinton. It happens to female sports pundits too. Sonja McLaughlan, the BBC reporter, was driven to tears last weekend by vile abuse directed at her following her Six Nations rugby interviews, and was then sneered at by the bullies for having cracked.
These tales don’t crop up in interviews with men: they usually look blank if you ask them how many death threats they’ve received. Such abuse is a way of keeping women in the shadows and punishing them for speaking out or behaving too loudly and it has to stop. Women shouldn’t have to quit social media and become mute. As Lewinsky explained to me, “whenever this kind of vitriol and misogyny is directed towards one woman, it reverberates to all women”.
But a new generation is refusing to play: stars like Carey Mulligan and Taylor Swift are calling out the snide sexual remarks, despite being denigrated as spoilsports. In the past year, women who have become crucial to efforts to counter the coronavirus have also demanded respect. When I interviewed Professor Sarah Gilbert, one of the developers of the Oxford vaccine, and Kate Bingham, who procured it, they took on their detractors.
No one dares denigrate them as witches; they’re wizards. Symonds should be allowed to get on with her new environmental job and the prime minister can take responsibility for his own wallpaper.