Tash Dowell (35) is a queer human rights activist from Zimbabwe. She was a coordinator for the Masakhane Collective in Zimbabwe until late 2020, and in 2021 began working for the Coalition of African Lesbians. She also participates actively in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process for the UN.
Since meeting the queer human rights activist Tash Dowell in 2017, I have always been impressed by her creativity. Invited by the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation to an online talk in September 2020 on “LGBTI-inclusive human rights work in southern Africa – the Masakhane project”, she prepared a video about activities in Zimbabwe and encouraged 12 activists from her collective to take part. Her stance is both considered and critical: in the discussion about conflicts in development cooperation between the North and South, it was she who called for a more self-confident African strategy for the issue of dependence on funding.
In Germany it is hard to imagine the concrete effects of everyday homophobic violence in countries like Zimbabwe. Dowell describes a traumatic experience at a training session she was asked to conduct for a 2014 LGBTI youth workshop. Armed police suddenly entered the room and demanded to see the convener. The young people looked at her because many had heard about the event from her. The police arrested Dowell despite her protests, and subjected her to eight straight hours of interrogation and pressure. “The whole ordeal left me paranoid and with a lot of anxiety,” she says. “I still struggle with it today, and believe it prevents me from developing the full potential of my activism.”
From 2013 to 2019 Dowell worked as a communications and advocacy officer for GALZ – An Association of LGBTI People in Zimbabwe. Founded in 1990 as the “Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe” (www.galz.org), this NGO was the country’s first LGBTI organisation. Due to the policies of then President Mugabe and the raids that resulted on a regular basis, it was constantly on high alert. Unknown individuals attacked its 2016 year-end celebration with such brutality that one co-worker was gravely injured. Dowell was beaten like everyone else. “I was lucky to have ‘only’ scars as reminders,” she remarks, “one on my face and another on my back.”
Although the discriminatory laws against LGBTI+ people in Zimbabwe have yet to change, the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018 that LGBTI organisations in the country could represent their interests. Dowell reports that this has slightly shifted the scope for advocacy and raised awareness on the part of other civil society organisations. But the threat remains high.
Feelings of otherness
Dowell was born in the capital city of Harare in May 1986 to a family consisting largely of her mother, her mother’s sisters, and cousins. Her mother was convinced that dialogue is the appropriate means of conflict resolution, and also practiced it. She strongly shaped her daughter’s subsequent feminist views, but unfortunately died when Dowell was 12.
Dowell saw her first lesbian love film, When Night Is Falling, at the age of 9. She was electrified, but for the next 11 years continued to believe there was something wrong with her. “Only when I was 21, when I met a woman who was not afraid to explore what all these thoughts and feelings meant, did I discover there was a language to describe them, and that there were more people like me.”
During the economic crisis of 2008 she moved to South Africa in search of a job. At first she felt isolated and again thought her feelings were different from everyone else’s – maybe there was something wrong with her after all and her experience with her lover had been unique. But happily she came into contact with a larger community of queer people via Facebook.
When she returned to Zimbabwe in 2010, some of her cousins had already outed her to the whole family. Yet she felt confident enough to answer questions like “Is it true?” with “What difference would it make?” Some of her relatives nevertheless distanced themselves from her, for as long as five years. “As I grew more confident in my own skin and subsequently bolder in my responses, we formed a quiet respect for our differences. We’re okay now and talk to each other now and then.”
Today Dowell says: “I would define myself as queer and gender non-conforming. I don’t like boxes but would say I’m very much within the lesbian spectrum.”
Human rights activism
Although not planned, Dowell’s job search in Zimbabwe led to an offer from the LGBTI organisation GALZ which wanted to use her creative abilities as a graphic designer and digital artist. She started working for the organisation as a volunteer and then on a full-time basis in 2013. She also began a distance-learning program in communication sciences to broaden her education.
As part of her responsibilities for youth outreach she developed the “Arts for Activism” campaign, based on the conviction that arts help people to open up and express themselves. “My most joyful moments have been experiencing a sense of community and seeing the happiness of young LGBTQ people when they realise they’re not alone in this world. Having the opportunity to contribute to their self-actualisation is pure bliss, it makes my heart full,” she says. A T‑shirt she designed with the imprint “Same Love” was a hit with the youngsters.
Dowell is also involved with the Feminist Action Campaign (FAC) launched in 2015 and the Masakhane project that brings activists from the Pakasipiti, Katswe, GALZ, Rise Above and Voice of the Voiceless CSOs together. At the international AIDS conference (ICASA) in Harare in December 2015, FAC organised flash mobs in the city centre to raise awareness about sexual violence against women. They also organised the Pangu Pangu Festival featuring exclusively female artists in order to confront the international guests with issues affecting queer women and sex workers.
The actions taken by civil society organisations in Zimbabwe are astonishingly varied and courageous – despite the political and social homophobia and the suppression of democratic opposition. The activities of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter and the arrest of the writer Tsitsi Dangarembga attracted international media attention in 2020. As a human rights activist, Dowell is right in the midst of these developments. After finishing her job as a coordinator for the Zimbabwe Autonomy Collective (Masakhane) in 2021, she began working full-time as a media and communications officer for the Coalition of African Lesbians.
With donors from the global North now promoting diversity and LGBTI inclusion, LGBTI+ activists are receiving more invitations from other CSOs. Dowell views this as a consequence of shrinking spaces and tighter resources for civil society. “It sometimes seems tokenistic or like more of an effort for them to register their openness to donors in exchange for funding. In such scenarios we make an appearance for visibility purposes.”
Also of note is Dowell’s work in international advocacy. In 2020–21 she was actively involved in an NGO report to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process. The UN Human Rights Council will review the situation in Zimbabwe at its 40th session in 2022, and NGOs will also be heard. For the first time, a report on the situation of lesbian, bisexual and queer women in Zimbabwe was submitted – a joint effort by the Pakasipiti, Hands of Hope and Africa Kiburi organisations and the Zimbabwe Autonomy Collective. Dowell is also involved in a broad collaborative effort to promote independence for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).
Desires for the future
Dowell fears that the Zimbabwean government will use the Covid-19 pandemic to scapegoat LGBTI+ people again and further restrict their rights. This in turn would incite homophobes to justify and commit crimes against members of the community.
“But of course I would like to see tangible changes in Zimbabwe within my lifetime,” she says. “Changes such as non-criminalisation of consensual sexual relations among same-sex adults, availability of IVF to all women despite their marital status, and abortion rights… In addition, I hope the funding community and international organisations take into consideration the different financial and technological capabilities of the communities they engage. To make some room for those who might not be in a position to be registered within their states. … And lastly, in our work for the rights of women and especially LBQ women we’re seeing competition for money and resources. It’s almost an ‘Olympics of the oppressed’, which gay men tend to win. My wish is for lesbian and queer women to come together and see that ‘power with’ is a force. LBQ women have to understand that agency is their greatest asset combined with coming together, because we are much stronger together than apart.”
- For more on this work by civil society, see www.cal.org.za and the African Feminist Standpoint magazine at www.ralf.cal.org.za
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