A fisherwoman in a fisherman’s world

18 Jun

800px-CanaveralNationalSeashore1

The gentle waves of the sea, lapping Anthoniarpuram, Mannar is known as many things.
Bountiful – even in off-seasons it still yields; safe – it never turns turbulent so no-one drowns in it; gracious; graceful…
It is thus known in local Tamil parlance as the female sea.
Further afield, in other areas, is the male sea; turbulent, wild, unpredictable…

Whether it is the male or female sea, yielding male or female produce, it was only the male of the human species however, who had appropriated for themselves the right to fish!

“Once upon a time, women were never even allowed on the beach! The shore, the sea and the boats were all men’s preserve” recalls one woman in this fishing village. Even women going to the shore to help their husbands to download their catch were frowned upon. Other men would taunt, “Ha! Can’t you protect your wife from such hard work?” recalls another. It took an extremely hardy man therefore to withstand the taunts and let his wife help him if she wanted to.

Rani Elizabeth, leader of the fisherwomen's Group, Anthoniarpuram

Rani Elizabeth, leader of the fisherwomen’s Group, Anthoniarpuram

For a long time, Rani Elizabeth’s husband was one such man. Women here who do not keep to their culturally assigned places by the hearth and seek to be ‘like a man’ are often scorned at – but in this village of Anthoniarpuram, Rani (48) has gotten past all that to gain a place of respect, all her own.

“My mother died when I was twelve and my father just went to pieces. He did not look after me at all and I had to fend for myself. Thus I ran free on the beach and unlike other girls, learned to be self-sufficient at an early age,” says Rani.

“Women of our village were not taught to fish! But Muslim women from the neighbouring village of Vidathalthivu frequently came to our shore to catch prawns.

“As a curious young girl, I’d run after them into the water. They would chase me away (along with their own younger ones) as our splashing about disturbed the sea-life they were trying to catch. But I eventually learned how to do it, and that I could make a substantial amount of money from selling the prawns, crabs and sea cucumbers thus caught,” she recalls.

What she describes harks back to a time when women, denied the ability to go out on boats or learn any fishing techniques, had yet figured out for themselves how to catch certain seafood in shallow water with their bare hands.

Rani got married at the age of 19 and her husband was exemplary in many ways; Kind, understanding, and supportive of her wish to be an equal partner to him. “We had only a simple row boat before, and he taught me how to push the boat out, how to balance it on water, how to row… also how to throw nets and use canes for fishing. I have even gone on long night journeys, to catch fish with him. Yes, people said a lot of negative things – but if it hurt him, he didn’t let me know,” she recalls sadly. A woman on a boat is considered ‘inauspicious.’ Many a woman here have been told that their menstrual fluid is a curse – and that even if they are not menstruating, they would blight the boat by getting into it. It is in this background, that Rani’s achievement, considering what she was up against, stands out.

A photo of a family photo, much cherished by Rani

A photo of a family photo, much cherished by Rani

Unfortunately, apart from fishing the other thing that the coastal fishing village of Anthoniarpuram is famous for is toddy consumption. 75 percent of the males are hardcore alcoholics. Her husband, who had for many years remained a moderate occasional drinker slowly became an alcoholic too. And thus the double income they had conscientiously earned for their four daughters finally became a single income – Rani Elizabeth’s! His income was enough only for his toddy consumption.

The boat they had, developed a leak and was sold off. Today her husband goes fishing with colleagues on their boats – and they wouldn’t take a woman on. So Rani has gone back to her childhood habit of catching prawns and crabs by the shore.

However, she now has companions from her own village. Once a scorned occupation for women (even by other women), prawn catching by the shore has become quite popular now among destitute women. The war has left many widows behind, euphemistically called female headed households. Traditionally brought up only to be a care-giver based at their home, they now have to juggle the dual responsibilities of primary carer and bread winner – for which many of them are hopelessly unequipped. There are yet others whose husbands are alcoholics, or left them for another woman, or simply do not earn enough to support their many children – and many of these women have decided to follow Rani’s example. Whenever she goes fishing, she earns anywhere from Rs.1000 – 3000 a day. This is too significant an amount to give up for the sake of pride.
And thus it was that Rani found herself the leader of a band of ‘fisherwomen’ post war, who kept increasing in size and now number 28.

“As we wade out, we feel for the prawns with our feet,” explains Rani. “They embed themselves on the sea bed and when we feel them pricking our feet, we take a deep breath, dive in and pluck them.”

Are there any bodily hazards due to this?

Yes, she replies. “My feet are usually full of cuts with the skin torn to ribbons. I come back, rub in Siddhalepa balm and stitch the skin back with needle and thread on my own. The next day, I would pour kerosene on it to numb the pain. And with that I would wade out again.”

The current windy off-season for fishing makes it not worth the while to go prawn catching – it is a seasonal occupation. So she hasn’t done this for two months now in which time her feet have healed, although she is able to point out her many scars.

Apart from this, the crabs of this area are huge monsters of 2-3 kg each! They fetch a tidy price on the export market but would they not be fearsome foes to try to catch bare-handed in the water?

Typically, crabs of this size or bigger are caught by the women

Typically, crabs of this size or bigger are caught by the women

“There is a method to catch crabs. We walk out with our fingers flexing under-water to feel what sea-life is available,” explains Rani. “As soon as you feel a crab, you have to press your thumbs down on its body, spread your hands outwards and pin back its claws.

“If it catches you first, never let go. The money a crab brings in is worth any amount of pain. Once a huge crab pincered my wrist. It was agonizingly painful but I grabbed hold of its body and waited till it let go. Only after I put the crab into the bag tied at my waist did I realize that blood was gushing like a fountain from my wrist. The area around us turned red with my blood and I nearly fainted – but it was worth it. That crab fetched Rs.3000 on the market.”

Is there any chance of losing fingers or limbs if a crab pincers them?

“Unlikely unless you are a small child,” says Rani. “I have had crabs pincer my fingers. It just numbs the finger for a long time afterwards. When my forefinger was pincered like that, I could not feel myself brushing my teeth for two whole months.”

During the fishing off-season, currently ongoing, Rani helps out at a shop she co-owns!

During the fishing off-season, currently ongoing, Rani helps out at a shop she co-owns!

Although she and her fellow fisherwomen are members of the local Fisheries Cooperative Society, they recently tried to branch out on their own to form a Women’s Fisheries Cooperative of their own – a move which has been rejected by the Government’s Assistant Director of Fisheries. He feels the men and women in the sector should work together instead of separately.

Why though did the women feel the need to branch out on their own?

“Because the men dominate us” she answers. “We wanted to start a cooperative in which our voices could be heard and concerns addressed.”

Rani‘s primary bitterness with her village Fisheries Society is that they did not support her fight against the neighboring Pallimunai fishermen, poaching on the women’s preserve.

Men too catch prawns as they are profitable – but they usually lay cages for them in the deep sea. It is illegal to use cages by the shore as they catch even young breeds of fish, sea cucumbers, crabs and prawns, thus depleting future stocks. The Pallimunal fishermen however have started laying their cages by the Anthoniarpuram shore – an area the Anthoniarpuram women have come to see as their preserve.

“When we tried to address the issue, the Pallimunai men treated us rudely and asked us what business we had out of our kitchens,” she recalls. Denied agency under her own cooperative, she has forced the predominantly men’s cooperative of her village to address the issue and send a letter of complaint to the Assistant Director of Fisheries. For her, it is an ongoing fight against male domination.

Meanwhile the female sea of her village still gently laps the shore; unbiased, unassuming and unperturbed.

 (Written for the Women and Media Collective, who will have to be sourced, if reprinted)

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