Eve Was Shamed by Helena Kennedy review – how British justice is failing women

The firebrand QC makes an incisive and sobering case that the legal system still discriminates against women

There was once a black woman who loved gardening. She visited the Chelsea Flower Show, which for a person of colour can still feel like a fairly brave thing to do. The risk turned out to be real. She was pulled out of a queue for the ladies’ toilet and accused of pickpocketing, allegedly having been seen elsewhere putting her hands into other women’s handbags. There was no sign of stolen property, but she still had to go through a crown court trial before being acquitted.

This is far from the most upsetting of the things experienced by women at the hands of the legal system documented and explained by the formidable QC Helena Kennedy in this book. Others have wider political and social significance – from #MeToo to FGM, domestic violence, immigration detention and the grooming of girls by gangs of sexual predators. The poignancy of the Chelsea Flower Show woman, a hospital sister whose only offence appears to have been a love of flowers, comes from its everyday nature. These are the stories that don’t make the news, and that only someone who has spent a lifetime at the criminal bar can offer. But there are also anecdotes that few can weave into a coherent, passionate narrative, building a case based on evidence, statistics, facts and experience, as Kennedy has done.

She has always been a source of fascination and admiration to me. A petite fireball, Kennedy grew up in the Glasgow tenements, both her parents having left school at 14. “When some of my relatives were told I had joined ‘Gray’s Inn’ and was studying for the ‘Bar’, they imagined I had gone in for hotel management or catering,” she recalls. It is fascinating to read about the days when women were openly described as unsuitable for the judiciary for being “too primly spinsterish” or “off-puttingly headmistressy”. And that was 2002.

In the 1960s, when Kennedy started practising, rape jokes were “constant”. Having been through and felt the conservatism that pervades the bar myself, it’s helpful to be escorted back to an era when radicalism was sweeping universities – the London School of Economics witnessing revolts and protests against Vietnam, for example – while at the Inns of Court, just a few hundred metres away, “the main topics of conversation were the Field Club Ball and the Fencing Club”. My time at the bar brought me up close to Kennedy, and not by coincidence. I was inspired by her first book, Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice – it was one of the reasons I became a barrister. I ended up at Doughty Street, one of three sets of progressive law chambers she has cofounded in her career. I have seen her in action – a whirlwind of purpose, charisma, passion. As a declaration of interest, I should mention that she was the very first person to read my book (Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging) when proofs were sent out, having finished it within about 48 hours, another reminder of her seemingly impossible levels of energy.

Eve Was Shamed is an important intervention, particularly on the subject of rape. Unlike Germaine Greer, who recently wrote a provocative and alienating book about it, based in part on a set of assumptions I found particularly hard to recognise, Kennedy brings us cold, hard facts about how women are treated by the criminal justice system, including rape victims still expected to answer questions in the vein of: “whether her vagina was naturally lubricated to enable penetration, thereby encouraging the jury to infer that some gratification was being found”.

It’s revealing to hear about her experience as defence counsel, feeling complicit in a process that is so often inimical to women. “I have felt ashamed as women I am cross-examining flash angry eyes at me for betraying them.” This is a telling snapshot of the law and how it fails us. Kennedy’s understanding of women is intersectional – not because that has become fashionable, but because she has been representing black defendants for decades, and understands the cycle of social deprivation, poverty, institutional neglect and crime they face. She has considered the thoughtlessness with which the usual conversations about race take place, criticising the lumping together of communities who are treated in very different ways into the abbreviation BAME. “Different groups are subject to distinct forms of racial stereotyping,” she says.

On the penalties experienced by black women, and those who are not only black but poor, and – that term still used with such loaded meaning against women of a certain class – “single mothers”, she writes with clear, calm authority. Her analysis of how such women fail to conform to what remain white, male ideas about appropriate female behaviour and femininity in court – and are penalised accordingly – is incisive.

Kennedy takes no prisoners. The less progressive among the judiciary fare particularly badly: they behave, she says, like “demented lemmings”. Her colourful language does not detract from the power of this fact-based account of the position of women in the law, and hence in society. Reading Eve Was Shamed, especially so many years after Eve Was Framed, is a sobering reminder of how far we have to go. But guided through this madness by someone as consistent, persuasive and sharp as Kennedy, is also to experience a sense of relief.

Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging is published by Cape. Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women is published by Chatto. To order a copy for £17.20 (RRP £20) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Afua Hirsch

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