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Just for men … not so just for women

Helena Kennedy has updated her analysis of how the justice system treats women. Little has changed, according to Harriet Wistrich

28 February, 2019 — By Harriet Wistrich

Helena Kennedy QC

I FIRST met Helena Kennedy in 1992, the year of publication of her seminal text, Eve was Framed, a powerful feminist analysis of how women are treated within the criminal justice system from the perspective of a working class Glaswegian woman who had exceptionally risen up the ranks of the criminal bar and achieved QC status.

We had invited Helena to speak at a public meeting held at Camden Town Hall of Justice for Women, a new feminist campaign group highlighting the injustices suffered by abused women driven to kill within the criminal justice system. I was considering at that time a change in career and shortly afterwards began studying law, eventually qualifying as a solicitor.

Eve was Framed sought to debunk the myth that the law is gender blind, by revealing the many ways in which women were discriminated against in the legal context. It was an eye-opening and excoriating account of the often severe prejudice women face particularly in the context of the criminal justice system.

Twenty-six years later she has returned to the same subject, in Eve was Shamed to explore the extent to which there has been change over that time. To what extent have things improved for women following years of campaigning, law reform and greater awareness of the sexist ways in which the law can be applied in the age of #Me Too and Time’s Up? The answer is that while there have been many changes for the better, women still suffer significant disadvantage and discrimination in all the areas she explores.

Eve was Shamed is a comprehensive and very readable exploration of the many ways in which women suffer discrimination in the legal context. Helena tackles issues from the treatment of women in prison, special hospital and immigration detention, to the investigation of crimes of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. She sets this in the context of myths and culturally entrenched views that inform lawyers, judges and other criminal practitioners who in turn replicate prejudices through their application of the law.

More detailed chapters reflect the expertise she had gained through 30-plus years as a criminal defence barrister covering issues such as “battered women who kill” and “wicked women” as portrayed through the criminal justice system.

Harriet Wistrich

Her analysis is informed by an underlying political understanding which recognises material and institutional power differences between men and women (“patriarchy”) in a context where there are intersecting oppressions of race and class. Thus she recognises the differences that women who are working class or BAME face at the hands of the criminal justice system. Sometimes, this political insight leads to a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of issues such as the (largely) Asian grooming gangs who ruthlessly abused and exploited the socially excluded mostly white girls. She recognises both the misogyny and exploitation of those men combined with the inexcusable failure of the authorities to protect the victims and investigate the perpetrators – citing a “toxic combination of race, class and gender prejudice”.

Or likewise her insight informs the prejudice of cultural relativity used as a smokescreen to hide the failure of authorities to tackle harmful cultural practices such as honour killing and female genital mutilation.

Sometimes though, Helena seeks too much to be on the right side of history and walks a thin tightrope around certain issues where feminists are bitterly divided.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the chapter on “prostitution” which, while recognising the abject exploitation that women in prostitution are subjected to, also seeks to uphold the choice she believes some women make to become sex workers. Elsewhere, she takes the popular side of the highly toxic debate around transgender rights and dismisses the views of many lifelong feminists who have devoted their lives to tacking violence against women, failing to recognise the concerns raised about the potential threats posed by the proposed new version of the Gender Recognition Act to the hard-won gains to protect autonomous women’s spaces.

However, I would warmly recommend this survey of women and the criminal justice system to anyone interested in how women are discriminated against in so many and various ways through the law and society at large. Helena concludes that, despite many improvements, women still face injustice and iniquitous judgments in a culture where patriarchy pervades. Indeed, it is for that reason that in 2016, after many years of undertaking cases on behalf of women suffering injustice in the criminal justice system I established a new legal charity, the Centre for Women’s Justice that aims to hold the state to account around violence against women and challenge discrimination within the criminal justice system. The overwhelming demand for our assistance, shows we have a long way to go before women have equality before the law.

Harriet Wistrich is a leading human rights lawyer and co-founder of Justice for Women.
Eve was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women. By Helena Kennedy. Chatto & Windus, £20.

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