RBG from the lens of a woman from the middle-east

I must admit, I didn’t pay that much attention to RBG until about ten years ago. Now that I look back, I realize that had it not been for this larger-than-life woman, perhaps my life in the US could have had more similarities to my life in the repressive conditions I was raised in. I migrated to the US from Iran in 1990, three years prior to RBG’s appointment to the supreme court. Here are just a few examples of what women in Iran endure in 2020:

“The World Bank‘s database, “Women, Business, and the Law”, lists 23 restrictions in Iranian law on married women; this includes “applying for a passport, traveling outside the home, choosing where to live, and being head of the household. Women cannot get a job or pursue a profession in the same way a man can; they cannot be ensured of equal pay for equal work, and there are no laws to restrain gender discrimination in hiring.” The WPS report also states there are no laws that penalize or prevent the dismissal of pregnant women from work, nor are there laws that provide rights for paternity or parental leave or tax-deductible payments for childcare. The Iranian Civil Code confers power on a husband to prevent his wife from taking any job found to be incompatible with the family interest or the dignity of the husband or his wife. Women have no legal protection against domestic violence or sexual harassment by anyone, and the constitution has no non-discrimination clause with gender as a protected category.”

Growing up in Iran and despite being raised by a very progressive family, it was normal for me to think that I would need my future husband’s permission to {fill the blank}! Years later, after having achieved independence and self-sufficiency (thank you Dad for teaching me to be self-reliant), I realized that my life in the US could have shared remarkable similarities to what I left behind in pursuit of independence and freedom. You see, not too long ago, gender discrimination was quite legal in the US. In fact, Ruth Bader Ginsburg experienced those herself. When she was a typist, Ruth got fired from her job because she was pregnant with her daughter. IIn 1960, Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter rejected Ginsburg for a clerkship position due to her gender. She was rejected despite a strong recommendation from Albert Martin Sacks, who was a professor and later dean of Harvard Law School. When she was a professor at Rutgers University, Ginsburg was informed she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job. (2)

RBG litigated a number of cases in the 1970s, in which she challenged a whole series of ways that government programs and employers were treating men differently than women – fathers, differently than mothers and she fought equally and fairly for both genders. Her premise was that of law is gender blind. For example, at that point in time, Social Security disability benefits were only available for widows but not widowers. So she took on a famous cold case called Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld and got that extended to men. In another case called Struck v. Secretary of Defense, she took on the case which ultimately led to the protection of pregnant women on the job since they could legally be fired by their employers due to their pregnancy. Judge Ginsburg dissented in the court’s decision on Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 550 U.S. 618 (2007), a case where plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter filed a lawsuit against her employer claiming pay discrimination based on her gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 5–4 decision, the majority interpreted the statute of limitations as starting to run at the time of every pay period, even if a woman did not know she was being paid less than her male colleague until later. Ginsburg found the result absurd, pointing out that women often do not know they are being paid less, and therefore it was unfair to expect them to act at the time of each paycheck. She also called attention to the reluctance women may have in male-dominated fields to making waves by filing lawsuits over small amounts, choosing instead to wait until the disparity accumulates. As part of her dissent, Ginsburg called on Congress to amend Title VII to undo the court’s decision with legislation. Following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims, became law. Ginsburg was credited with helping to inspire the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. (1), (2)

Beyond RBG’s fierce determination for gender equity, we are all inspired by her intellect, worldliness, and humor. A friend of mine, Dr. Fereshteh Modarresi, wrote this piece about meeting Judge Ginsberg: “I was in New York in 2004. A friend from the New York Times invited me to a Christmas party. I did not know anyone at this party and I was alone when I saw a woman my grandmother’s age come in with her husband. I said hello to her and she extended her hand. I then introduced myself and she repeated my name and asked me where I was from. I said that I was Iranian and she started asking me very interesting and informed questions. She said: “In your country, the elected part of the parliament is always weak and the power is in the hands of the unelected”. She knew about the Iranian judiciary branch and the power of the conservatives and the lack of judicial independence. She was well-informed about the conservative appointed watch-dog group in Iran who “qualify” the elected members of the parliament. She asked many thought-provoking and well-formulated questions as though she had studied the Iranian government structure for years. I was so impressed by how much she knew about the structure of the system, the legislature, and the judiciary. Who was this scholarly lady with a petite frame and massive intellect? I finally asked her: “What do you do?!” She said: “I am a supreme court judge.” I was speechless at that moment. The only phrase I could say was “ Wow, impressive!” She was adamant that as an Iranian woman journalist, I should stay in the United States. She even called the host who worked at the UN and urged him to help me extend my visa and remain in the US. I laughed and said: “It seems that my case would be on the winning side should it ever make it to the Supreme Court,” She said, “Rest assured, your case will never reach the Supreme Court.”

As a working mother who is fighting to change the stereotype about being a good mom, my favorite story about RBG is when she got a call from her son’s school. This is how she narrated the story at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival: “So I would get called by the head of the school, the school psychologists or the room teacher to come down immediately to hear about my son’s latest escapade. Well, one day, I think I’d been up all night writing a brief. I was at my office at Columbia Law School. I got the call. And I responded this child has two parents. Please alternate calls. And it’s his father’s turn.” (3)

Thank you, the Notorious RBG. I am forever grateful to you for making it easier for me to be an independent and FREE woman in the US who also happens to be a wife and mother. Rest in Power…

(1) Biography.com
(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg
(3) https://www.npr.org/2020/09/19/914850034/ruth-bader-ginsburg-an-inspiration-to-working-mothers

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