The struggle of fisherwomen in Morocco

Most Moroccans had thought it impossible for a woman to have a maritime career until, it became a reality. Before long, Moroccan women couldn’t imagine themselves as maritime workers. The reason behind this is the common stereotypes of women’s work, especially in maritime professions, and so fisherwomen on small boats existed only quite recently.

When we investigated on fisherwomen working on small boats in northern Morocco, we could only find a few women in Moulay Bousselham, carrying out a seasonal activity that includes nothing but oyster harvesting, with no experience in boat fishing. We didn’t record any other cases in this field along the northern coast-line that extends from Tangier to Saidia, except in Belyounech near Jebel Musa, which is located in the coast-line between Tangier and Tetouan.

Belyounech is a small town at the foots of Jebel Musa, which is isolated from the rest of the world except for its seaward side that overlooks the occupied city of Ceuta, seven kilometers to the east. The town is a part of Mediq Fnideq province, in the Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima administrative region, north of the Kingdom. Balyounech is on the Mediterranean. It is bordered by the city of Fnideq to the south, and the province of Fahs Anjara to the east. A chain of highlands surrounds the town, the highest of which is Jebal Musa. It has enormous natural and touristic potentials which have not been exploited. Belyounech was economically connected to Ceuta where many of its citizens were working. However, the closure of the borders of Ceuta in the early 2000s led to the destruction of the town’s economy.

The experience of fisherwomen in Balyounech came to light only three years ago. It was dictated by difficult economic circumstances, as one of the workers on the fishing boats mentioned. She said that she became a fisherwoman after she had lost her job in Ceuta following the closure of the border crossing point. Similar reasons forced a group of women to establish a cooperative, and to coordinate with officials in the fishing sector in the region, who responded to their demands by providing a field training for two years. The training’s goal was to prepare women to sail fishing boats. It was focused on repairing nets and cleaning boats and the trainees were not paid; because, women’s access to paid jobs in the independent fishing sector was limited, owing to their lack of training and unwillingness to be fisherwomen.

(Women of “Amwaj Balyounech Cooperative for fisherwomen” during a fishing expedition)

The founding of the Fisherwomen’s Cooperative in Balyounech therefore, didn’t receive official recognition until 2019, although the idea had been proposed long before then. The idea of organizing women in a cooperative for fishing by boats was suggested by a relative to the head of the cooperative, who granted one of his fishing boats to them.

The treasurer of the cooperative, Safaa, told us; “The idea of founding a cooperative for fisherwomen was suggested by the head of the cooperative’s relative, who encouraged and gave one of his own fishing boats to the women. And so, the cooperative was founded under the name of “Amwaj Balyounech Cooperative for Fisherwomen” in 2019”

22 women joined the cooperative at first, forced by the compelling circumstances. After they had completed their training, they were able to sail, depending on themselves, by dividing the tasks among them. They were cleaning and preparing the nets before they go fishing. In addition, they were cleaning the boat and packing the equipment which included an engine, anchor, and fishing nets. Then they were pushing the boat into the water by themselves to start their fishing expedition. Upon their return, marketing troubles begin.

In general, the women’s portion of fishing in the Mediterranean consists of small quantities of “anchovies”, “sargo”, “octopus”, “squid” and other marine species. Their total fishing catch is often modest and does not exceed a few kilograms.

Profits from the laborious fishing trips are not usually high, due to many reasons that the cooperative’s secretary explained; “The cooperative’s fishing boat is of small size, it lacks modern equipment and tools that could facilitate the work. The women hardly find fishing nets, which are usually small ones. In addition, the activity of fisherwomen is limited to a number of days, considering that the boat is not available all the time. Moreover, fishing days depend on the clarity of the sea and suitable weather conditions. Over and above, the small number of fisherwomen involved in the cooperative, can only make modest profits that barely cover the needs of them and their families.”

The treasurer of the cooperative
(The treasurer of the cooperative)

When it comes to the women’s profits from fishing, a basic fact cannot be overlooked, that is the great increase in marine resources’ depletion by the owners of ships and large fishing boats. The owners of fishing boats do not care about reserving fish resources. Their personal greed motivated them to only accumulate profits. They pollute the environment and greatly harm the fish and marine stock, through the discharge of vessels and large ships. One of the fishermen, “Abdul Salam”, confirmed that the sea has become more polluted than it was before, thanks to the discharge of steamships. In addition to the careless behaviors of the seafarers towards the marine environment that they pollute with wastes especially plastic which is more harmful to the sea and its marine creatures. For those reasons and more, fish stock and the profits from it are diminishing, which explains the poor financial earnings of the fisherwomen’s cooperative.

When this experience began, fisherwomen in Balyounech worked with each other in the cooperative, independent from the owners of boats or the owners of the overseas fishing vessels. Later, some women started to work for a number of those owners. Typically, women’s work was limited to cleaning tasks rather than sailing. The number of women who were enrolled in the cooperative, therefore, was decreased from 22 women, at the time of founding, to now only 15.

Those women were forced to work outside the cooperative’s auspices because of the difficulties of the work; as the fishing expedition starts at sunrise and may continue until sunset. In addition to, the difficulties of the fishing itself which requires special skills and long experience in sailing. Besides, the risks that are related to weather and sea vagaries, and the absence of most safety and security equipment. As well as, the possibility of returning empty- handed or facing marketing difficulties whenever they return with a good fishing catch.

Giving the absence of a syndicalist framework, and their unwillingness to engage in trade union activity, fisherwomen’s practical and financial status came to be worse; because they couldn’t find any way to express and defend their demands to improve their status in the fishing sector. As well as the absence of support from the concerned officials in the fishing sector to the fisherwomen. If we exclude the two years of training that was given to them at the beginning of the experience, cooperative’s women have not received special support to encourage them to continue their experience and develop it, thus; they couldn’t improve their conditions. Rather, they were left to face their fate in the sea all alone.  

On a visit to the village of sailors in Balyounech, we had to ask about the connection between sailors in general, men and women, and the trade union work. We met “Abdul Salam”, the chief of a fishing boat, who has been working in this profession for more than 30 years. He said; “sailors in general don’t engage at all in any trade union activity; therefore, they can’t preserve their gains or defend their interests”. The same point was confirmed by the treasurer of fisherwomen’s cooperative, who said that they haven’t participated in any union activity, and that they meet to discuss their interests only within the general groups of the cooperative.

While the concerned authority was supposed to support the fisherwomen and their experience that boosts principles of equality and equality of opportunity; and neutralize gender discrimination; as well as providing an opportunity to improve the financial situation for a number of families, it doesn’t stand by them at all in terms of providing fishing facilities, equipment, and safety supplies, or facilitating the sale of caught fish. Moreover, the cooperative does not receive any direct financial aid.

Fisherwomen during a fishing expedition
( During a fishing expedition)

In general, women in “Amwaj Balyounech cooperative for Fisherwomen” are still fighting and persisting on adhering to their experience. They are also still determined to continue their experience despite the countless constraints surrounding the cooperative; because, they don’t have another available economic alternative. They are adherent to their right of independence with an economic activity that guarantees them a decent life. This what makes them proud of their experience. The treasurer of the cooperative said; “The women of the cooperative still actively and enthusiastically work and meet periodically to improve their work conditions and develop themselves in the marine fishing activity.”

When we asked a cooperative member’s brother about his and other men’s point of view in Balyounech of fisherwomen’s experience, he confirmed that they don’t have any problem with it, rather; they accept and encourage the experience; because women too could sail to make a living for themselves and their families. The fishermen’s point of view also reflected their respect for the women’s experience. The experience of “Amwaj Balyounech Cooperative for Fisherwomen” is a unique social one that has important economic and cultural dimensions; as it is considered an economic opportunity that gives women the right to work and live a decent life. It also reflects the principal of women’s economic independence from both men and large ships’ owners. It also undermines the wrong social stereotypes of women, and boosts the principals of equality, justice, and equality of opportunity. Even though the cooperative of fisherwomen faces arduous conditions that hinder its development and impede improving women’s economic situation, they are still determined to carry on their work.  

Aziz Rifai


  • This article was translated from Arabic by Hadeer Ahmed
  • The original article is on the link