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A fishing town where women overshadow men

By: Hafeez Tunio

KARACHI: Ramo Hajar Jo (Ramzan son of Hajran), Qasu Rasti Jo (Qasim son of Rasti) and Babu Saki Jo (Babar son of Sakina) are all fishermen who reside in Ibrahim Hyderi, off the coast of Karachi.

Locals call these men after their mothers’ names, as it was these women who, in a male-dominated society, gained a prominent position by making fishing nets in one of the largest fishing settlements in Pakistan.

“Our entire family is known because of our grandmother. She was a well-known person in Ibrahim Hyderi as she used to weave traditional fishing nets,” said Sakina Mallah, who continues in the footsteps of her female elders.

Sakina, 55, lives with her family in Chharan Muhallah of Ibrahim Hyderi. Her husband goes for long fishing trips while she, along with her daughters, makes fishing nets. “Those were the days when fishermen of Karachi’s coast, especially those from Rehri, Dabla Muhalla and Ibrahim Hyderi, would place orders with us for weaving fishing nets,” recalls Sakina.

According to Sakina, the fishing net, locally called “rash”, has always been made by women. “Our men always go for fishing and spend weeks in the sea. The women run the house and look after the children and take part in social activities; therefore, they were more popular than their male counterparts,” she explained. In the past, a few such women have also held jirgas in the community to resolve petty issues, she said.

In any fishing community, there are two sources of livelihood: fishing and net weaving.

Earlier, nets were woven from various kinds of grass. Later, cotton was used but now nylon nets have replaced all other material.

Nets considered environment friendly are known as “Thukri” and “Lathe jo ban”. These are supposed to catch the big fish.

Meanwhile, the “Katro” net is used to catch shrimps. Unfortunately, some fishermen have started using destructive nets like “Gujjo” and “Bollo” which is having an adverse impact on marine life as the nets catch fish as well as their eggs. Despite a government ban on these nets, many fishermen continue to use them.

Zulaikha, 51, has been in the net-making business for forty years. “We were overloaded with work at the time [four decades ago], and our family refused to take orders to make more nets. But now this profession is dying because there are no more fish in the sea and the fishermen are sitting idle at home,” she remarked, revealing that after a two-month lull, someone has placed an order with them to make a net.

After getting this latest order, Zulaikha has divided work among three other women of her family since she wants to get the job done as soon as possible.

Farzana and Halima were sitting cross-legged in the house and busy knitting the Lathi jo Ban net.

“This is a 300-metre net. It will not catch fish eggs due to the large size of its mesh, and only catches fishes weighing five to 20 kilogrammes” said Farzana, 18, who prefers to work at home rather than going to school.

“It takes fifteen days to finish [one net] and we each earn Rs1,000,” she said, adding that there are only five to six families in Ibrahim Hyderi that make fishing nets. “Our earnings depend on the strength and weight of the net,” said Halima.

In Bengali Para, women, especially young girls, make the Katro nets. “I work three to four hours daily and take two months to finish a net,” said 18-year-old Fatima. Showing a six feet wide and 800 feet long nylon net, she said, “I will earn Rs2,000 when I finish it.”

Narrating the effects of the downturn in business, she said they get orders for hardly three to four nets a year now.

Kamal Shah, the field coordinator of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) – a representative organisation of Sindh’s fishing community -, said the trend of net making has almost diminished as most people now get readymade commercialised nylon fishing nets, with local women only determining their mesh size and joining them.

“Commercialisation in fisheries, such as the use of fishing trawlers, has created a problem. With the industrialisation of the fishing industry, it is no longer a family-based activity,” he said, adding that industrial water and cutting of mangroves which serve as a breeding ground for shrimps have created problems.

An elderly woman, Yasim Baloch, who lives in Nanghani Muhalla of Ibrahim Hyderi, recalled the days when she was young and used to go fishing on islands far out in the sea with her husband. “We had set up houses on the islands. The women would cook while the men would be busy fishing,” she remembered.

Talking about the deteriorating environmental situation of the sea, she said “There was a time when even spitting in the sea was considered a crime in our community. Despite being serious addicts of gutka and chhalia, no fisherman would pollute the sea while working. Even after eating the fish, we collected its bones and would dump them at a proper place rather than throwing it in the sea. This is how much we loved our sea.”

The 70-year-old said the situation is totally different today as the abundance of fish has gone down drastically owing to untreated sewage and garbage being disposed of in the sea. “Now, no one cares for our ‘darya’ [sweet water river],” she said, using the phrase used by local fishermen to describe the sea, and added that, “Without women in the fisheries business; there would be no fish in the sea.”

Express Tribune