Exploring the World of India’s Women Fish Workers

Over the years, Aarthi Sridhar has learnt to be decisive and insistent, to sound confident about being out at sea. It’s the only way she will be allowed on a fishing boat.

At a fish market. Credit: Ramesh SA/Flickr, CC BY ND 2.0

At a fish market. Credit: Ramesh SA/Flickr, CC BY ND 2.0

“I’ve been out at sea on a boat with fishermen before. I don’t get seasick. If I went on a boat I’d be forced to jump into the water to pee, so that’s why I can only make short trips. But look, I need to do this. I’ve done this before, really. It’s not new to me.”

Aarthi Sridhar, a social scientist, has learnt to confidently say this to fish workers every time she needs to go out on a boat with them for her research on fisheries. “I have to prove that I’m not a ‘frail’ woman. In this field women feel compelled to be men. It is a macho industry,” Sridhar says. She is almost 40 years old now, and Sridhar is one of the trustee-founders of the Bangalore-based NGO Dakshin Foundation. They work on natural resource management and promote sustainable livelihoods, and Sridhar heads the Communities and Resource Governance Programme there. It undertakes projects based on conflicts over conservation measures. Over the years, she has learnt to be decisive and insistent, to sound confident about being out at sea. It’s the only way she will be allowed on a fisher boat. Sometimes they do allow her. Sometimes, they don’t.

Nearly three million fish workers along India’s coastline depend on fishing for their livelihood and many more are engaged in inland fishing in rivers across the country. Setting out by boats to fish is almost always a man’s job. “It’s a strange relationship,” Sridhar says. “In places like Tamil Nadu, the sea is worshipped as mother, but the sea is seen as unaccepting of women in its domain.”

A new documentary, ‘Fishing Palk Bay’, which Sridhar both researched and produced, looks at the role that men in the fishing industry play in the narrow stretch of shallow, warm sea between India and Sri Lanka. Palk Bay was also where traders used to find natural pearls. The documentary shows us beautiful shots of men under water catching fish. In Olakkuda, a small fishing hamlet in the southern tip of the Palk Bay, men lay out box-like woven fish traps on the seabed. In another scene, they swim through the sea, bringing up chank (molluscs) and other living organisms with them.

The only time we hear a woman speak in the documentary is when it’s about making nets. In ‘Fishing Palk Bay’, we never see women out in the water in the way that women in Orissa catch crabs or row boats like in Sridhar’s 2016 documentary titled ‘Chronicles of Oblivion‘. There the women are everywhere – on the boats, in the markets, and being auctioneers. They worry about forest guards finding them fishing, and one woman says that if she has more than 2 kilograms of crabs to sell, she needs to rely on men in the market to figure out how much money she needs to get.

A boat docked at Tuticorin. Credit: Umeed Mistry

A boat docked at Tuticorin. Credit: Umeed Mistry

Usually though, women in fishing communities take care of everything in the industry except actually going to sea. If women aren’t selling their fish in markets early in the morning, they are usually processing it. Thirty year old Mahima Jaini, a marine biologist and diver, says that in Minicoy, the southernmost atoll of Lakshadweep, women sit on the beach ripping apart the fish heads from its bodies with their hands (fishers usually use knives for this in other places). Then they boil the fish in pots and leave them to dry on the roofs of their houses, before smoking them indoors.

Women fish workers in Goa were protesting on February 24, asking to be involved in decisions on policy. Marianne Manuel, who works extensively on law and fisheries in Tamil Nadu, says that problems that women fish workers face aren’t always heard about. She works on the impact of coastal laws and policy about traditional fishing communities, and says, “Issues facing women don’t always get addressed. Even basic facilities such as toilets at fish markets need to be lobbied for, since they are not automatically created.”

All researchers always need to work at breaking the initial barrier of being a stranger in the area. The only way to do this is to spend enough time there to build credibility, but where you’re allowed to do this varies. If male researchers can go out and get a drink with the fishermen after a long day at sea, as women, Sridhar says, they don’t have access to these places. Instead, they have access to the markets, and occasionally, their houses.

Boats have always been off limits to women. Sometimes it’s considered bad luck to have a woman on the boat. There are stories of these superstitions – that they would anger the sea gods and cause bad weather, or a bad catch. Male researchers wouldn’t be asked as many questions as women (not only because they could pee off the boat easily), but because as Sridhar says, there is the sense that if you’re a man, you should be able to deal with difficulties. “Women need to negotiate harder and be innovative to make this kind of research happen,” Sridhar says. This means jumping through more hoops.

Jaini, who is currently working on community monitoring in the Lakshadweep and also looks into protocol for recreational divers in the Andamans, can’t remember the number of times she had to ask to be allowed on a fishing trip. Her first fishing trip was 12 hours long. She was only allowed because a local fish worker she had befriended vouched for her. “She doesn’t get seasick. She’s a diver; she can just dive off and pee,” her friend told the other hesitant fishermen – the same things that Sridhar has come to say confidently. If he hadn’t been coming with them, Jaini is sure that even his convincing wouldn’t have been enough.

The only time Jaini was really scared in her four years in the Andaman Islands was when she saw a huge cockroach in the boat. “What is wrong with you? You’re not scared of diving but you’re scared of a cockroach,” the eight men on the boat teased her when she screamed. They had just spent nine hours on a small wooden boat catching needlefish, the slender fish with a long, narrow sharp-teethed beak that swims near the surface and leaps out of the water. Jaini was curious about how they were caught. “It involves a complicated procedure of ensuring that the line encircled them,” she says. When they had finished their patchy conversations, because the fish workers spoke Malayalam and Jaini didn’t, she would dive into the sea with the men to get underwater footage of them catching fish.

Women’s mainstay: selling fish at the Mangalore fish market. Credit: Aarthi Sridhar

Women’s mainstay: selling fish at the Mangalore fish market. Credit: Aarthi Sridhar

As a woman researcher, it is easier to speak to women in the industry, says Sridhar. They are more curious, and always demand to know why the researchers are interested in fishing practices somewhere so far from home. “Why this job?” they ask. “How come you don’t have a husband?” “Is it alright to travel alone?” “Why these clothes?” The questions come over and over again the longer they stay in the area. Often, they aren’t only from women. Sridhar says that everybody from the more affluent trawler owners to professors from local colleges begin to ask her about marriage. “The overwhelming feeling throughout my research has been of being a very different sort of woman,” Sridhar says, “A woman armed with the privilege of caste and class, but also the privilege of being able to practice feminism.”

When Sridhar first began to work, her research was in Uttara Kannada, Karnataka. She would travel on her own, and it took her a few months to stop noticing that she was doing things alone. “I was very aware that I was seen as an outsider, and that there were eyes looking at me all the time,” she says. In Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, where Sridhar was researching Palaivar fish workers and their history as part of her PhD (on the history of fishery science in India), she would meet fishermen on the beach late at night, when they had their meetings. She soon found herself receiving blank calls and phone calls from priests who wished her goodnight at 1 am. She never found out how they got her number.

In 2013, Sridhar visited villages in coastal Orissa. Here, she was looking at the impact of sea turtle conservation on women fishers, but found herself spending a long time waiting around, relying on the generosity of local men to drive her from place to place. She didn’t know how to drive a geared motorbike. “I was confronted by the limits of my urban sensibilities,” she says, over the kacha roads packed with mangrove mud. She was thrown off the bike more than once on the 10-km ride through the mangroves. Other times, Sridhar would slip out of her accommodation (which was in itself terribly hard to get because it was never available for single women) at night to be able to buy sanitary pads in the village. And while male researchers could simply put out a sleeping bag anywhere at night, Sridhar says that it isn’t fair to suggest to unwilling women that this is the way they should be working.

Aarthi Sridhar on a docked dhoni in Tuticorin. Credit: Umeed Mistry

Aarthi Sridhar on a docked dhoni in Tuticorin. Credit: Umeed Mistry

There is more on the flip side. Martina Anandam, a primate ecologist who spent four years in Chamba village, Himachal Pradesh, researching langur distribution there, says there is often an apathy to women’s needs by fellow male researchers. “They expect you to forget you’re a woman,” she says. The sense is that since she is strong enough to go out on fieldwork as a woman, something like being on her period couldn’t be a reason to be slower on the field for a day. And as Janaki Lenin wrote in her piece on women in wildlife research for Sanctuary Asia, women also have to deal with male colleagues who stop them from carrying out research. “We have to work twice the amount to get one-quarter the recognition that men get. They routinely look down upon us like we are small; we don’t count,” Gopa Pandey, one of the first Indian Forest Service women officers, had said to Lenin.

Over the years, Jaini, Manuel, and Sridhar say that they have all come to find ways to answer curious questions about themselves. If they did choose to get married and have children, perhaps they would be like Kaberi Kar Gupta, who studied primates, and took her baby daughter with her while she did her research in the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai forests. Maybe it is also a lot like negotiating to be allowed on a boat, or wondering if you should join the fish workers for a drink, apart from meeting them at a local chai shop. They now make space for themselves where they are usually not allowed.

Ila Ananya is a staff writer at The Ladies Finger, where this article first appearedThe Ladies Finger is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

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