Wed. Mar 29th, 2023

The Bedouin catchers who eke out a living along the shoreline of Oman laugh and sing as they work. But they fear they may be the last of their kind
Photographs by Reinilda Dernison
Khaleedah al-Hokmani glides barefoot through the murky waters, holding a rusty iron spear. She walks in silence – until her spear plunges into the water. There’s a sound like a deflating balloon. Seconds later, a silver cuttlefish emerges, sputtering black ink on her clothes.
She rips the cuttlefish into pieces. This one is female and has eggs, she says, as she scoops them out and swallows them whole. A blue ink sack dangles between her fingers and she holds it up to her mouth and sucks it dry. Smiling, she flashes black teeth.
“This is how we stay strong,” she says.
Khaleedah al-Hokmani (foreground) and another Bedouin fisherwoman trawl the water at Shannah port in Oman
Such are the ways of the roughly 400 Bedouin fisherwomen in central Oman who practise a lifestyle inherited from their mothers: fishing for invertebrates. The trade is so ingrained in Oman that fisherwomen exclusively run the freshwater snail fishery, known locally as rahas. With spears, they hunt cuttlefish, rays and octopus, and scour shorelines for oysters and clams to sell in local markets.
But the increasing commercialisation of Oman’s industrial fisheries – which are male-dominated – is pushing the women’s trade into decline.
Hokmani spears a cuttlefish, which spurts black ink into the water
Most of the fisherwomen live and work in Mahout, a remote coastal town of 17,000 Bedouin families and migrant salt-factory workers in Al Wusta, the most productive fishing region in Oman, and neighbouring Masirah Island.
But although – or perhaps because – the country is more than 95% reliant on small-scale fishers, it is heavily investing in larger commercial and offshore fisheries projects, including a 24m Omani riyal (£52m) seafood canning plant in Al Wusta, set to open in 2024, and the purchase of three large pelagic freezer trawlers.
Meanwhile, 70km away in Masirah Island, a village is being built to attract fishermen to the island. Announced last year, the site aims to house residential units, an ice factory and maintenance workshops for fishing boats.
While the expansion is set to provide opportunities for local fishermen and foreign workers, Oman’s fisherwomen are entirely overlooked in the projects being built right next to them, says Farha al-Kindi, founder of Sea Delights seafood company, who works with the fisherwomen to sell their products.
Fishermen prepare their boats in Shannah port
“They are completely isolated,” says Kindi. “There are many opportunities for these fisherwomen to participate in the industry. But still in Oman, we are not able to involve them.”
The work is becoming increasingly insecure, agrees Hokmani, who at 14 was taught rahas and spearfishing by her mother, and married a year later. She is now divorced and supports eight children. She spends her mornings as a bus driver – but the rest of her income comes from fishing.
Hokmani and her spearfishing friends introduce themselves playfully as “the bad gang”. To fish, they drive 50km from their homes to the fishing grounds, where they unload their equipment: iron spears, plastic fuel canisters with ropes to drag their catch along the water – and plenty of homemade cake and tea.
Fisherwomen use traditional methods to catch rays, octopuses and cuttlefish; there is no local use for this pufferfish, which was released back into the water
The women wade into the low tide holding their spears as if they are an extension of their bodies. Each wears a coloured headscarf, yellow sunscreen made from sandalwood paste and stiff black battoulahs, or traditional veils.
“This lifts my spirits up,” Hokmani says as she steps forward. “Women used to sing as they went into the sea. Our mothers taught us the songs, but many of the younger women don’t know them any more.”
As the most experienced of the group, Hokmani leads the others through thick seagrass that would make it almost impossible for an amateur to know where to step. A cuttlefish jets by and she pierces it in the neck with suchmasterly technique that no ink squirts out.
Two hours later, as the tide begins to rise, the women head back to shore, jesting with one another. Hokmani binds the cuts on her feet and then counts the group’s catch: 20 cuttlefish, two leopard whiprays and nearly three dozen seashells – a slow day, she admits.
Fisherwoman Shefeya al-Farsi holds up a cuttlefish she speared from the shore
It’s a similar situation in Masirah, Oman’s largest island, where the Bedouin fisherwomen have long fished freshwater snails, not just for food but as a crucial element in Omani frankincense. Here, Shefya al-Farsi, 58, has maintained an affectionate and maternal presence for more than 40 years. A small jar of snail meat sells for about five Omani rials (£10), distributed by word of mouth and through WhatsApp. Her daughters, however, have not learned the trade, choosing instead to pursue higher education and eyeing jobs in larger cities.
“I wish they would continue it. We want to see it go from generation to generation. But now, we find that fewer women are doing rahas,” she says.
She, too, fishes in a group of five women, who don thick gloves and shoulder-bags carrying hammers, metal knives and containers before slipping into the waters off the jagged shoreline, searching for turban and top shells – ya’afour and hilwan. While having no formal education, the fisherwomen are quick-witted and instinctive: part of the traditional knowledge includes knowing which shells to gather and how to do so in a way that ensures populations will recover.
The women are drawn to a large rock. To the untrained eye, it looks like nothing special – but to the women it’s a goldmine. Farsi gently uses the back of her hammer to crack open a well-camouflaged shell, then swiftly switches to her knife to pry out the meat, white and squishy. Circling loudly above are gulls, sounding as if they are laughing along with the women beneath them.
Bedouin fisherwomen sit together to harvest sea snails on Masirah Island
Sabra al-Farsi harvests sea snails, whose operculum (right) is extracted to make frankincense
Tapping and scraping the shells away, the group join in the raucous clamour and begin to sing ballads their mothers taught them:
How tasty the meat of the seashell is
If you work you can get many
The lazy ones don’t get to eat any.

“We followed our mothers in childhood and so we also grasped what they taught us. I love everything about the sea. I feel joy,” says Farsi’s cousin, Sabra.
Like many of teh fisherwomen, Nashrah al-Makhani wears a homemade sunscreen paste when out fishing
In the distance, two fishermen in a small boat trail nets into the deeper water. Subsidised by the Omani government, their equipment stands in stark contrast to the fisherwomen’s household tools and spears, paid for with their earnings.
“We don’t want it to die. We want to show our traditional way of fishing, but at the same time modernise. We want a better environment to pass the trade to the daughters,” says Kindi.
Reporting for this piece was partly funded by the 2022 resilience fellowship of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC)
This article was amended on 9 January 2023. An earlier version said Masirah Island is in Al Wusta; it is actually in the neighbouring governorate of Al Sharqiyah South.


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