The many facets of Unity Dow

24 Mar 2011

The courtroom had its way with Unity Dow long before the writer’s desk did. It is in the courtroom that Dow first achieved local and then international fame with the landmark Citizenship case, famously termed the Dow case.

When the United Nations Human Rights Commission named the 10 most significant cases of the last decade for their effect on women’s rights, it numbered the Dow case among them.

“It was the most transformative case I have been involved in,” Dow says. It is near impossible to sit across Dow and not yield to the temptation to make her speak about the landmark case. Yet her formidable reputation transcends that one oft-quoted case.

It is Sunday afternoon and we are sitting on the patio of her house in Odi, as she speaks variously about her views as a lawyer, human rights activist and novelist.

The prelude had been curt enough for one to be wary about preparing well for this. “I suggest you do a google search so we don’t waste time on public facts,” she texted tersely ahead of this interview. It registered to the journalist’s mind that these were words from one who is completely at ease with her reputation, her public persona.

It has been said before that Dow is wary of the press, that she will always see an interview as a duel. As a journalist interviewing her, you are acutely aware of walking the tight rope between her work as a lawyer-cum-human rights activist and her role as a novelist.

Her media savvy is probably down to the fact that among her other firsts, she served for 11 years as Botswana’s first woman High Court judge, before retiring from the bench to start her practice, Dow and Associates. Previously she had served as a partner in the country’s first all-female private law practice, before working as a prosecutor in the Attorney Generals’ Chambers.

In 2006, the Observer’s David Beresford described as a “phenomenon”, in the wake of the famous ruling on the rights of the Basarwa to return to their ancestral land. Since then, she has continued to expand her glittering resume.

In 2008, she was elected to the executive committee of the International Commission of Jurists. In 2010 she was sworn in as Justice of the Interim Independent Constitutional Dispute Resolution Court of Kenya.

The same year, she was awarded the French Medal of the Legion d’Honneur de France for her human rights activities. That is in addition to finishing her first non-fiction book, Saturday is Funerals, written jointly with Harvard University Aids researcher, Max Essex.

Sitting across from her, it is immediately clear to one that Dow carries her larger-than-life mantle with ease. Rather than making her stuck up, it has made her acutely aware of human foibles. Even more striking is that this is no duel. It is an animated chat with a personality completely easy in her skin.

First up is the question of what hat she is most comfortable with. Lawyer? Human rights activist? Novelist? “I’m at ease with all of them,” she says as one who has answered the question too many times. “But I’m a lawyer first,” she adds. “I enjoy law and can’t imagine doing anything else.”
She has recently finishing reading the Infidel by muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself a female icon, originally from Somalia, who made it to Dutch parliament. “It’s a topical book,” says Dow.
Her reason for writing novels is simple enough: she enjoys it. She says writing involves probing people’s minds. “In writing you can’t help but give out part of your soul,” she muses.

To Dow fiction is easier to write – it is easier to use as a channel to draw upon her myriad experiences in the courtroom. Indeed, she is an acclaimed author, with four novels and legal thrillers to her credit. Her books address many of the issues she has dealt with in court – HIV/AIDS, child protection, women’s rights.

For her writing was a calling, an attempt to go beyond the restrictions Botswana offers. But Botswana is hardly a literary beehive, so she admits that she does not do it with an eye on the bank account. “I see writing as a pleasure, creating a break from my regular work,” she says.
Moreover, she speaks openly about what, between working as a lawyer and sitting on the bench, gives her more of a rush. She prefers the hurly burly of the practicing attorney – it has a totally different rhythm to the bench, a rhythm she is very familiar with. And it doesn’t matter whether it is a prosecutor or defence attorney; as a person fascinated with solving problems, she sees both sides as equally fascinating.

You would think that in selecting the cases that gave her the greatest challenges as judge, she would look at a criminal case, or the famous Basarwa case. Not a chance. Deciding in a divorce case which of the parents get custody of the child, is a more heart-rending decision that deciding on a murder case.

Unity Dow is an avowed non-conformist, and a feminist who makes no apologies for it. In the drawn-out battle for women’s rights, she feels some elation when she looks at how far she has come. “When we started out on the issue of women’s rights, we were very much voices screaming in the wilderness,” she says.

“When we sought changes to the Domestic Act, we were countered with opposition that that the Penal Code was sufficient. Now these rights are being considered as part of the culture of our times.”
It is on the question of HIV/AIDS that Dow offers her most interesting insights, especially on perceptions from the West about Africa’s crass disregard for protected sex. She dismisses the stereotype that Africa is more irresponsible when it comes to the issue of sex.

“I would know that Africa has more sex than Europe if the red light districts in Amsterdam are closed down,” she offers. “I would also know it for sure of the abortion clinics in Europe are closed and morning-after pills are shelved.”

She says is there no empirical evidence that African women, for instance, have more sex than their Western counterparts. The tragedy for African 19 year old woman, she argues, is that the evidence of sex is pregnancy. “In Europe and the US, they resort to abortion and morning-after pills.”

“Also, I would know that Africa is more reckless if the divorce rate in the West tapers off from its near 50 percent levels,” adds Dow. Relationships in the West, she says are serial. “People fall in love every day. They marry; they fall out of love; they divorce; they marry someone else.” The “small house” in Africa has its equivalent in the prostitutes of the red light district.

Also, she has her reservations about the quality of Botswana’s media. “Local journalism is in many cases based on allegations and not on research and analysis,” she says. The newspapers should not pretend to be impartial; they should declare their agendas.

How easy is it to carry this larger-than-life mantle? Her response is utter simplicity. “I see myself as a blessed person, in a blessed time, in a blessed family, in a blessed country.”