In recent decades, in both France and most other Western countries, women have been used to justify an increasingly punitive approach in criminal justice policies. “Protecting women” has been used as a pretext to create new categories of crimes and offences, longer sentences and crime prevention innovations such as electronic bracelets and systematic DNA sampling. Criminal justice policies in the area of sexual violence, domestic violence and prostitution – seen as “sexual slavery” – claim to “save” women by criminalising men. However, we must not only consider whether criminal justice policies are doing what they claim to be doing – protecting women – but also analyse how these policies actually impact women, particularly when it comes to violence against women.
Nowadays, turning to the police and the criminal justice system to fight sexual violence is often considered a matter of course. Yet despite decades of increasingly tough policies aimed at preventing sexual violence, every year, at least 94,000 women report being the victim of rape or of attempted rape [in France]. And every year, more than 550,000 women report sexual assault! I can’t see how anyone can still attempt to convince us that this approach can work. Add then there’s the appalling way most victims are treated, from the moment they file a complaint to the trial. The only thing we gain by putting perpetrators of sexual violence behind bars is a guarantee that they won’t commit sexual assault while in prison – if we gloss over the sexual violence that happens within prison walls – and some kind of reassurance that not all crimes go unpunished. This is, in my view, a small consolation when one considers the mass crime that is sexual violence.
My work is focussed on a feminist analysis of the criminal justice system and how it affects women. First of all, prisoners may mostly be men, but the lives of the women around them – mothers, sisters, companions, daughters – are often affected by their time in prison, particularly in view of the various forms of domestic work expected of them, including moral support (visits, letters, etc.). Furthermore, it turns out that incarcerated women have much in common with incarcerated men: they are mostly working-class, with roots in the history of colonisation and immigration. But the profile of female offenders is also particular in that many of them have been victims of sexual violence, which has shaped the course of their lives, led to social isolation and been a factor in their criminal record. It’s also important to talk about the sexual and reproductive health of incarcerated women, about period poverty in prison, and the disgraceful conditions for trans women in men’s prisons. By turning away from incarcerated women and from those with incarcerated relatives, certain strands of feminism reveal much about the social background of their supporters and about the kind of emancipation they aspire to. However, movements that seek to assert a grassroots feminism, one developed by and for racialised women, such as Afrofeminism, are striving to imagine and build a sisterhood that does not stop at the prison gates.