Helena Kennedy’s Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice

I love this book. It’s an utterly brilliant deconstruction of the systemic misogyny and racism endemic in the British justice system. Kennedy basically takes a swipe at the hypocrisy, prejudices and ignorance of police officers, lawyers, judges and juries; at those destructive theories of hyper-masculinity and femininity which criminalise women for being women. Kennedy’s main thesis is that “(r)eal equality means treating ‘as equals’ whilst taking account of the context of our lives.” (4): everyone is equal under the law but we treat people as individuals and not as cartoon characters. What she actually says is: “… all I am really asking is that the law should be capable of transcending difference by first acknowledging it.” (11)

I wrote that paragraph last week and then saved a huge pile of notes with it. Obviously, I can no longer remember the clearly erudite statements I was going to make about this book other than it was brilliant and it was very clear not only on the role poverty plays in criminalising women’s behaviour but also how poverty is no longer considered an acceptable mitigating factory for women’s behaviour. (81) Women can be constructed as victims, particularly in the issue of prostitution. Women are victims of the Patriarchy and the physical and emotional damage to our bodies is how the Patriarchy punishes women but poverty is a major reason women are victims. (111) If we talk about poverty, then we have to take responsibility for the structural inequalities which harm individuals and have repercussions throughout society, whereas with victimisation politics we can decant responsibility onto specific individuals. This allows society to deny the existence of the patriarchal structures and rape culture in which we live. Kennedy reiterates over and over again the economic inequalities which punish, isolate and violate the very basis of women’s lives.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book was the discussion of the double oppression faced by Black women in the UK due to race and sex/gender. Kennedy argues that the matriarchal family structures prevalent in Black British families disproportionately result in the incarceration of Black women because the white patriarchal legal system is scared shitless of intelligent strong women, especially intelligent strong women who don’t happen to be “white.” (170-171) The marginalization of Black women within the justice system is simply a travesty. There are no words to describe just how badly Black women are treated, derided and over-punished in the UK. Kennedy’s praise of the Southall Black Sisters is immense but I personally don’t think we can ever commend the work of SBS enough. They are a small, poorly-funded organisation who do incredible work with ethnic minority women within a culture which cares very little for these women.

The only part of the book which I found problematic was one sentence buried in an otherwise important [and incredibly depressing] chapter on prostitution. Basically, Kennedy asserts that there is such a thing as adult consensual prostitution and denying its existence infantilises women. (147) Now, I’m sure Brooke Magnanti engaged in “adult consensual prostitution” but let’s be accurate here: for every “Belle du Jour”, there are literally millions of women trapped in prostitution and other parts of the “sex industry” who didn’t “consent” to be there. What is really perplexing is that the rest of the chapter is a catalogue of the damage and destruction that prostitution does to women’s bodies, the social consequences of prostitution for individual women and the very salient fact that for some women prostitution is the only way to “work” whilst having children. Kennedy is also very clear that “(p)rostitution has been tolerated because of two sustaining concepts: the protection of the private sphere from the hand of the law and an acceptance of male promiscuity which is not afforded women.” (146) The problem is that acknowledging these two points makes the argument that some women “choose” to be prostitutes ridiculous.The quote also contradicted other chapters in the book wherein Kennedy demonstrates that women are disproportionately incarcerated for petty crimes and the amount of abuse and mental illness that women as a group endure before/during prostitution [and prison]. The sentence just reads wrong.

At its heart, Eve Was Framed is a call to arms to rebuild the entire British Justice system so that it is fair for all whilst recognising and encompassing the specific needs of individuals. It is about justice for those who aren’t white, rich and male. Yes, it is 20 years old and supposedly our justice system is more aware of the structural inequities but we all know that’s a crock of shit. Southall Black Sisters, along with Amnesty International and other groups, have been fighting for the “no recourse to public funds” rule overturned in the cases of women escaping domestic violence. The public vitriol, misogynistic bullying and threats that the victim of the convicted rapist Ched Evans received on twitter have gone on without impunity and nothing covers the unrelenting horror of a woman convicted in Wales forperjury after withdrawing her allegation of rape owing to physical threats by the rapist and his family/friends: a conviction that the Court of Appeals refused to squash. Women do not receive real justice in the UK. They never have. We need to change things now and not let our daughters suffer similar fates.

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