Archive for Women’s Rights

Complicating Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy Through the Lens of White Feminism, Race, and Indigenous Rights

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews and student at Columbia’s School of General Studies majoring in Human Rights with a Concentration in Gender & Sexuality Studies.

On September 18, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87, after serving on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for 27 years. Ginsburg, popularly known as RBG, and in her most recent fame “The Notorious RBG,” is a feminist icon. This is for good reason—she accomplished a number of “firsts” in her lifetime and her work contributed to groundbreaking progressive legal changes, particularly regarding gender. 

Flowers on the steps of the Supreme Court following Ginsburg’s death. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg graduated top of her Columbia class and became the first woman to be appointed as full professor at Columbia Law. As Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she litigated over 300 sex discrimination cases before working on the D.C Court of Appeals for 13 years. Ginsburg joined SCOTUS in 1993, where she served until her death. During this time, Ginsburg rose to mainstream fame, becoming well known for her blistering dissents and constant advocacy as one of the vital liberal justices on an increasingly conservative court.

Following Ginsburg’s death, the media blew up with condolences, concerns about political implications, and articles commending Ginsburg on the successes of her career. Yet in this barrage of (justifiable) abounding praise, I couldn’t help but think about what happens when a person, a human, becomes an icon so coopted by a movement that her humanity becomes erased. In truth, Ginsburg was a person, and people are not perfect. What do we lose in this black and white thinking about legacy?

A caveat: in this article, I will offer a critical overview of Ginsburg’s legacy. In doing so, I do not intend to discredit or ignore the vastly important implications of the decisions that she made over the course of her career, particularly for women. Rather, I hope that this article presents the opportunity to, amongst our mourning and praise, also think deeply about who benefits from RBG’s legacy, and more importantly who falls to the wayside: namely poor, queer, Black and Indigenous People.

 

Ginsburg’s Feminism was for White Women

In 2013, a NYC student started a Tumblr account entitled “The Notorious RBG,” beginning the memeification of Justice Ginsburg as a white feminist icon. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg was director of the Women’s Rights Project during the height of second wave feminism, a time characterized by calls for women’s equality to men. Also known as “sameness feminism”, this camp challenges anything that could be perceived as treating women as the “lesser sex.” Ginsburg based her entire legal career on reasoning that adhered to this model. Her cases on sex discrimination followed a formula: anything that appeared to be treating a member of one sex differently from a member of the other sex was either sex discrimination, or in the case of her 1 in 4 male plaintiffs, reverse sex discrimination. 

Although on face value, this version of feminism intuitively makes sense, its historical context and practical application mean that in practice, it only really benefits one group: white women. Of which, of course, Ginsburg herself was a member.

As Muqing Zhang points out in a 2019 article in The Establishment, equality to men is an easy point of view for an upper-middle class white woman to have because sexism is often the only form of discrimination that white women face. Yet, maintaining a sameness-based sex equality argument obscures, and even worsens, the experiences of, for instance, poor, Black, queer women, whose marginalizations are plural. In fact, it was the very prominence of the consistent exclusions resulting from a sameness feminist model that led to the development of Critical Race Theory.

Ginsburg’s appeal to white feminism is clear and with this in mind, Ginsburg’s popularized successes in court take on a different tone. Zhang argues that Ginsburg’s formulaic equality framework resulted in the consistent and lasting elimination of any preferential policies towards women—results that were successes for only white women. Cases such as Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975) and Califano v Goldfarb (1977), ended policies on federal aid that benefited women specifically. Although aligned with a white feminist model of success, eliminating preferential policies leaves the poor, queer, non-white women who rely on these programs stranded. The results of these decisions are not racist in intent, but they do say something about the challenges of her positionality as a wealthy white woman. Zhang writes, “Although it may not have been Ginsburg’s explicit intent to harm the most marginalized of women, part of the insidiousness of white feminism is that it convinces its believers that the white woman’s experience is the universal experience for all women…in the end, it is not the intent, but the devastating impact that matters.”

On Race:

Ginsburg was not entirely oblivious about the challenges that she did not herself face. At her swearing-in ceremony in 1993, Ginsburg said: “A system of justice will be the richer for diversity of background and experience.” In 1994, Jerome McCristal Culp Jr. wrote and published “An Open Letter From One Black Scholar to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in which he reminded Ginsburg that diversity on the court does not automatically ensure that diverse voices are heard before the court. Further, understanding one form of oppression (gender) does not mean that one can or will understand another (race), or their intersections. “Privilege does not mean that the holder cannot hear the voices of the oppressed,” writes Culp Jr., “but it does suggest that one possessing such privilege ought to take care to examine where she is in relation to others and where she and others are going.” As with Crenshaw, Culp Jr. cites the challenges of applying an equality model to racial settings. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is a model that at best maintains the status quo, and at worst reinforces existing racialized inequalities.

When Ginsburg engaged with issues of race directly, it came across with mixed messages. One such example is her hiring record. At her confirmation hearing, Senator Hatch questioned Ginsburg about the fact that over her 13 years at the DC District Court, out of 57 employees, not a single one was Black. Ginsburg replied by saying, “I am going to try harder, and if you confirm me for this job, my attractiveness to Black candidates is going to improve.” Yet, over her 27 years on SCOTUS, she only hired one Black law clerk. Granted, law clerks for SCOTUS justices are notoriously white across the board—85% since 2005. However, a systemic problem is not an excuse for a lack of revision of hiring practices, and it is still disappointing to read of Ginsburg’s poor record.

Ginsburg made headlines again in 2016 for her insensitive response to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem as a protest to police violence and in support of Black Lives Matter. In the original interview, Ginsburg calls the protest “dumb and disrespectful” and compares it to flag burning. Ginsburg quickly apologized after massive media blowback. Although it appears that Ginsburg was taking issue more with the action of political speech that Kaepernick chose to take than with the cause he was protesting for, it’s frankly surprising that she was “unaware” of the nature of these protests and further, demonstrates a tendency in the legal world to interpret political actions along a hierarchy of value. Progressive values are structured to favor some political spaces (like campaigns) over others (like sports). And the very spaces that are favored are the spaces that are already structurally exclusionary to BIPOC.  Where is the space for voices against racism when the easily accessible platforms to denounce it are valued less than the institutions that gatekeep? 

In her world in the courtroom, Ginsburg didn’t stand out on cases related to race but generally sided with the other liberal justices in condemning white supremacy & racial discrimination. After all, the civil rights framework that challenges racism is the same as her well-worn equality framework for gender discrimination. For example, as an attorney, Ginsburg credited the work of Black queer civil rights attorney Pauli Murray in Reed v Reed. She authored an amicus brief for Coker v Georgia writing, “the death penalty for rape is an outgrowth of both male patriarchal views of women…and gross racial injustice created in part out of that patriarchal foundation.” Ginsburg also clearly addressed the intersections of voter suppression and race in her famous dissent, Shelby County v Holder.

She ruled in favor of several important cases regarding the rights of the incarcerated, although it is not clear that these decisions were based on her awareness of mass incarceration as an issue with disproportionate effect on BIPOC. Yet Ginsburg also supported increased barriers for prisoners seeking rights in federal courts and joined the majority in Overton v Bazzetta, upholding draconian visiting restrictions. Definitely a mixed record.

One interesting case study of Ginsburg’s lack of engagement with race is her Utah v Strieff (2016) dissent. An equal protection 4th amendment case about warrants and unlawful stops, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote a harsh dissent critiquing the ruling, which included what is now colloquially referred to as Sotomayor’s “Black Lives Matter Manifesto.” In this condemnation that also cited Black scholars and activists Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sotomayor wrote “[the decision] implies that you are not a citizen of democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.” Ginsburg signed onto all of Sotomayor’s dissent except this section. Ginsburg ruled on the liberal side, and yet stopped herself at Sotomayor’s explicit discussion of race. Why did she pass up an opportunity to use her platform as a prominent white woman in power to express solidarity with BIPOC?

Indigenous Rights: RBG’s Biggest Regret

Ginsburg accepting her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. // Creative Commons

When it comes to Indigenous Rights, Ginsburg likewise does not have a strong record of support. The legal field itself contributes to this. US law is based primarily on individual rights, a reflection of Western neoliberalism. This comes in conflict when dealing with Indigenous Peoples, whose rights are collective. Further, education about Indian Law is poor across law schools; only a few states include it on their Bar examinations. As a whole, the American legal system is rooted in the history of systemic genocide, exclusion, and erasure of American Indians. Given this, it is upsetting but not surprising that in her confirmation hearing, Ginsburg stated that “I cannot pretend to any special knowledge in this area of the law.” The Marshall Project does note that Ginsburg’s decisions on cases regarding Indian Law improved over the course of her time on the court. For example, her very last Indian Law case, McGirt v Oklahoma (2020), importantly ruled that a majority of Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country—a landmark recognition of tribal sovereignty. However, backtracking to some of her earlier decisions, we see a number of cases where Ginsburg restricted Indian rights, such as US v Navajo Nation (2002) and Strate v A-1 Contractors (1997). Perhaps the most notorious, however, is City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

Ginsburg authored the 8-1 2005 Sherrill decision, ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation regarding their claim to tax-exempt status on traditional Oneida land which NY had acquired as the result of an illegal transaction in the 19th century, and then was repurchased by the Oneida Nation in 1997-98. Ginsburg’s reasoning rested on longstanding racist legal doctrines such as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Ginsburg argued that the “longstanding Non-Indian character” of the land and the Oneida’s delay in seeking relief kept the tribe from “rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.” This decision was heavily and rightfully critiqued.

It is clear that Ginsburg took these critiques to heart. In May of 2020 she confided in some of her clerks and peers that Sherrill was the single decision in her time at the court that she regretted the most. She paired this with a declaration of hope that the next SCOTUS nominee be a Native American woman.

What does all of this tell us? It tells us that Ginsburg made countless valuable progressive, life changing decisions that benefitted hundreds of thousands of Americans. It tells us she has the capacity for growth and critical thought and the humility to apologize. It also tells us that she made some really bad decisions, too. In other words, she wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Legacies are complicated, and the legacy of a judge on SCOTUS even more so. 

We experience a general failure to recognize Ginsburg’s complicated history because she has been elevated to icon status in the pervasive white feminist narrative. As Si’iyda Shabazz writes, “painting her as a superhero on a pedestal” by the ever-impervious white feminist umbrella means we forget (or are prevented from realizing) that at the end of the day, RBG made mistakes. Just as her successes deserve to be shouted from the rooftops, the less rosy side of her record ought to be available for critique. We can only become better citizens, better feminists, and better advocates by knowing that mourning and critical analysis are not mutually exclusive, and in fact can strengthen each other and provoke us to turn Ginsburg’s legacy into justice-oriented action.

Death Penalty for Child Rapists in India: Populist, Hasty, Counterproductive

by Shardool Kulkarni, a law student at the University of Mumbai

This January, an eight-year-old girl hailing from a minority shepherding family in India was abducted, gang raped and brutally murdered in the Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the subsequent months, the incident generated polarized reactions in India and around the world, with public outcry juxtaposed against the response from individuals in authority and alleged politicization of rape owing to the victim’s minority status. The ensuing public discourse has placed the ruling dispensation headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi under intense scrutiny, particularly in relation to the government’s stance and policies regarding child rape.

In April 2018, the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 2018 was promulgated. The said ordinance brought in several changes to the existing legal framework pertaining to child rape in India, the most significant being the imposition of the death penalty as punishment for rape of a girl below the age of twelve years. The move, while hailed by some as an example of the government’s toughened stance on child sexual abuse, was criticized by academics, judges, NGOs and legal practitioners as being likely to worsen the plight of victims of child sexual abuse.

Disincentivising Reporting

The Kathua rape case involved the victim being abducted, drugged, gang-raped and brutally murdered by eight persons, including four policemen. However, it is pertinent to note that this is not the norm when it comes to instances of child sexual abuse: according to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 95.5 percent of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim. The perpetrator of abuse is not the figurative shadowy stranger who strikes fear into the minds of the public, but rather the more closely known devils such as parents, older siblings, teachers, neighbors, or family friends. Victims of rape aged below twelve years are also unlikely to report a crime unless an older family member does so on their behalf. The likelihood of this happening is already low and could be diminished further if the consequence of reporting is the death penalty. As such, the amendment is likely to push the already underreported crime of child sexual abuse deeper into the chasm of unspoken, unacknowledged secrets of Indian society.

A Death Sentence for Victims?

The ordinance seemingly also ignores the possibility that making the act of raping a girl below twelve years punishable by death, a punishment usually reserved for murders, could encourage perpetrators to kill their young victims. Rape is an exceedingly difficult crime to prosecute if the only witness in most cases, the victim, is dead. While it may seem counterintuitive that a rapist would murder his or her victim and increase his or her chances of being sentenced to death, the heightened risk of being caught if the victim survives and thereby receiving the death penalty anyway could, in the opinion of some, prompt more rapists to kill their victims.

Indian students protest against rape in India in 2015. Sexual assault of women has been an ongoing issue in India. // Sajjad Hussain // AFP Photo

Following the enactment of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, the term “rape” has been accorded a wider connotation, including not only the traditional notion of penetrative sex but also other forced sexual acts such as fellatio. Thus, “rape,” as defined by the Indian Penal Code, is unrelated to the risk of death and need not necessarily be an act that may result in the death of the child owing to the sheer physical violence accompanied by it. Placing the punishment for raping a child on the same pedestal as the punishment for murdering a child might simply incentivize more abusers to ensure that their victim does not live to tell the tale.

Gender Bias: An Evidence of Populism and Apathy

Most media outlets in India carried news of the government’s decision on child rape. Interestingly, the ordinance only makes the rape of girls below the age of twelve years punishable by death, casting a blind eye toward male victims who constitute 52.94 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse in India. This sidelining of male victims points to a knee-jerk response to momentary outrage, a clear manifestation of the skewed discourse surrounding sexual violence that too often turns a blind eye to male victims. 

Subsequent to the promulgation of the ordinance, the Central Government announced its intention to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in order to make the changes brought in by the ordinance apply to male victims as well. While the move is a welcome one, it further highlights the fact that the policy in question was a hasty move.

Death Penalty: An Ineffective Deterrent

In its 262nd report, the Law Commission of India concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the deterrent effect of the death penalty was any better than that of life imprisonment. In the United States of America, for example, states that did not impose capital punishment for homicide were found to have lower homicide rates than states that did impose capital punishment. As such, the presumption that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent is fundamentally flawed.

Moreover, presuming that death penalty does indeed deter child sexual abuse, the deterrent effect is watered down significantly in India by poor case disposal and conviction rates. In its 2016 report titled “Crime in India,” the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that the conviction rate under the POCSO Act is an abysmal 28.9 percent. To make matters worse, pendency in cases of child rape was 89.6 percent. Moreover, there are no witness protection programs in place, and no probe has been made into the functioning of Child Welfare Committees set up by the government. Imposing stringent punishments becomes meaningless if the law remains a mere dead letter.

Several persons in authority responsible for the ruling dispensation, including two ministers in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, protested against the arrest of the accused in the horrific Kathua rape case. The apathy of the police authorities, the statements made by persons in power and the communal color that the entire incident acquired created a strong public sentiment against the ruling party on the issue of child rape. In this light, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 can only be regarded as a hasty and populist move to placate the outraged public without addressing, and moreover possibly aggravating, the plight of the innocent victims of these horrific human rights violations.


Shardool Kulkarni is in his penultimate year as a law student of the five-year law course at the University of Mumbai. He holds the distinction of being the youngest Indian to have deposed before a parliamentary committee in Indian legislative history. In the past, he has worked as a law trainee under Justice F. M. I. Kalifulla, Judge, Supreme Court of India, and as an Attaché to the Office of the Speaker, Lok Sabha, Parliament of India.

The Story of a Young Tunisian Mother’s Struggle for Safety

By Izzy Tomico Ellis, a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Additional reporting by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

Syrine* is sitting on the edge of a bed inside a tidy room for two, in City Plaza — a squatted hotel in Greece where solidarians from all over the world have flocked to bring respite to its refugee residents. Her little son started walking yesterday. In between our conversation, she holds out her hands to catch him as he falls down. Soothing him, she recalls, “I looked on Facebook to find out what to do when he was crying. I was alone with a baby…I didn’t know anything.” 

When we asked her if we could write down her story, she smiled, “I’ve thought about telling it a lot.”

The strength with which she carried herself had compelled me to ask, and at the same time made me worry she’d laugh. For her, a 21-year-old mother, bravery comes so naturally. 

When we first met in Athens in the January darkness, she explained that her husband had gone out the previous night to buy cigarettes and never came home. In the morning, she had called the main hospitals.

“He wasn’t there. I was relieved a little,’’ Syrine recounts shakily. But a few hours later, she had discovered he was in prison after being caught without the legal papers for refugees in Athens.

Too scared to return to where she had been staying, Syrine had been pushing her son, Salah*, around the streets in a buggy ever since.

Alone and homeless, remarkably she kept a clear head. She spoke calmly in English, asking for a lawyer to come the next day to try and resolve the situation for herself and her family, and arranged a room at City Plaza.

It wasn’t the first time. The young Tunisian woman has spent nearly three years running to protect herself, her husband and their son. Salah was just 8-months-old when they had to flee their country after Syrine’s relatives threatened to kill her in revenge for bringing dishonor to the family. The couple had managed to marry just before Salah was born, but Syrine’s family continues to look for her.

“My brother would do it, I know he would,” she said. Until then, she had been at university, hiding the relationship and pregnancy from her family. “I didn’t want an abortion; it’s easy, but it was my baby with the man I loved.”

The International Women’s Day march in Athens, March 08, 2018. // Izzy Tomico Ellis

She described the double-life she was leading in Tunisia, scrolling through old Facebook posts and event pages of the electronic music nights she and her husband would attend in the city of Sousse, close to the country’s capital, Tunis.

Tunisia has made significant legal advancements in the push toward gender equality, including lifting a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and ending a law that meant rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims. However, systematic violence against women still persists: In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said 70 percent of Tunisian women were victims of abuse and honor killings in Tunisia are still reported.

“One man told me there was no hope for asylum, and I should just go back,” she shakes her head . “He has no idea… My father is a famous man, he cares about what the people think, not about me —  we had to leave.”

After fleeing to Turkey, they arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syrine describes what she saw in the camp as unbelievable. “Everywhere children without clothes or shoes,” she says. “Some people stay there for over a year —  one year!” Her eyes widen. “ I would go crazy.”

Moria camp has become an infamous symbol of the European refugee crisis where living conditions that lie behind barbed wire fences have been repeatedly condemned by leading human rights organizations. 

“We went to a hotel the next day and travelled to the mainland illegally. I couldn’t live there… with a baby,” she shakes her head.

“I think he misses him. He was happier before,” she gestures to Salah, as he refuses food in a restaurant close by to where they are staying.

Syrine has spent the last few weeks trying to arrange paperwork for her husband, to no avail. As the pair had left the previous island camp without the correct documents, she was told she would have to return if their asylum case was to be processed as a couple. Though, Syrine has relentlessly tried other ways.

“Every day I wake up early, I go to this organization — Katahaki (the Greek Asylum Service) — but each day passes and nothing happens,” she says. “Every night I would fall asleep and hope tomorrow will bring a solution.’’

But it hasn’t, so today she is leaving. Her hair is more blonde, and she’s cut it shorter. Her husband is still imprisoned, and Syrine is forced to leave her safe room in the hotel —  to travel back to a camp and live alone.

“It’s a dangerous step, but I must do it. I must go back there to help my husband,” she says. Her voice falters. Only a few days were spent at the camp before —  but she’s seen enough to know the dangers, the difficulties, the fear —  not being able to go to the toilet after a certain time, sleeping with her belongings wrapped in her arms, with her baby.

We find Syrine’s suitcase and bags parked outside the hotel. She comes out a few minutes later. Her face is made up. She looks European. It’s deliberate, for fear of police and discrimination. She pulls a hat over her son’s dark curls, speaking to him in English. Walking toward the train, she runs into friends on the street, another goodbye.

She made the same trip, just in the other direction, with her husband only months before. The closer we get, the more her face looks as if it will crumble —  her nervousness at the uncertainty that awaits her and her little baby lurching closer and closer each station we pass —  but it never does.

“I studied one year of architecture, then nursing, but now I think I want to be a mechanic,” she had told us in the days before.

Off the train, she gathers herself again, struggling to collapse the buggy into a taxi as the driver tuts impatiently, the hinges catching on baby toys —  as ever, she holds her cool —  once again methodically packing her life belongings.

 

*Syrine and Salah are false names used to protect real identities.

 

Izzy Tomico Ellis is a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster in 2016 and is currently based in Greece. Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.