Women in maritime fishing cultural heritage: living traditions

Maritime cultural heritage is all heritage, tangible or intangible, linked to the ocean, fishing practices, objects found on shipwrecks, old vessels, etc. It is a witness of the relationship between coastal communities, the maritime environment and the landscape itself. This heritage is essential for the creation and strengthening of their cultural identity.[1] Throughout Europe and the world, what examples of maritime cultural heritage can be especially linked to women? Let’s explore the coast and history to find out…

Long cultural century-year old traditions

In the framework of 2022’s European Heritage Days, European cultural practices and heritage connected to the maritime and coastal landscape and to fishing traditions can be highlighted. It is also relevant to notice that 2022’s theme focused on sustainability and sustainable heritage. In fact, when thinking about, for instance, fishing practices and traditions it appears that they are more environmentally sustainable and are being rediscovered in order to safeguard the environment and protect natural resources because they are usually more respectful of the nature’s cycles and have survived for generations.

Maritime cultural heritage expands from national and local maritime museums tell the story of past powerful maritime power, such as in the United Kingdom, through the exhibition of maps, manuscripts, navigational instruments, ship models; to local cultural practices that are directly linked to the ocean or the coastal landscape. Many such examples and projects working to preserve this heritage can be found, for instance, in the EU-funded project “PERICLES”, which specifically works and has worked towards the preservation, safeguarding and enhancement of coastal spaces in order to enable sustainable usage of maritime and coastal cultural heritage. In this framework, projects have been implemented in Estonia, Malta, Scotland and Ireland, Denmark, Brittany and other places.[2]

Portuguese women communities knitting for fishermen

These European Heritage Days brought to light several stories, projects and practices connected to the maritime sector. Among these an interesting approach to traditional hand-knitted fishermen clothes, made by women in Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal, has produced an artistic project which puts together the traditional practice of embroidery of fishermen’s clothes with literary texts about the figure of Penelope, Ulysses’ wife. This project, started in 2021, tries to highlight and celebrate the traditions and the heritage produced by locals and connected to the practices of the fishing town by shedding light on the central figures of women in this town, and how this community has always been fundamentally matriarchal. Even if it’s the figure of women waiting on land, it still shows the unvalued unpaid and unrecognized yet often central work of women related to fisheries activities. The project also aimed at reviving this tradition and at encouraging local people to know more about their own heritage and celebrating it.[3]

Other practices elsewhere bring together cultural heritage, fishing traditions and the role of women: how heritage can make evolve gender norms and vice-versa

For instance, the story of a centuries-old male-dominated tradition opening up to fisherwomen is very much worth mentioning and interesting. The place is Oostduinkerke, on the coast of Belgium on the North Sea, and the practice is horseback shrimp fishing. A tradition that has been recognized as representative of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2013, this practice has commonly been associated with men and passed down from father to son. In 2015, though, several local associations representing these fishermen also allowed a fisherwoman to join the team, effectively putting an end to the “all men’s club”.[4] Previous to that, there were only 17 fishermen remaining practicing this type of fishing. Nele Bekaert, the first woman to be recognized as horseback shrimper, says that it is thanks to the inscription of the practice on the UNESCO intangible list that she could be admitted and recognized on the same level of her male colleagues. In fact, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in article 2.1 clearly states that “consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development”.[5] This implies, among other things, the respect of gender equality.

Furthermore, gender norms may change gradually as does intangible cultural heritage, and for this reason it may happen that cultural practices that were once confined to the domain of a specific gender, change over time to include also other gender groups[6]. This story shows how even long-standing traditions and norms that have been always considered the “usual” can change over years or generations. This is by definition what is understood to be intangible cultural heritage which is not by chance also called “living heritage”, because it can change and transform over time, and this includes acquiring a more open and inclusive dimension, for example by opening up to other gender groups.

Korean women shellfish divers

Other traditions linking together traditional fishing practices with women are to be found outside Europe, for instance in Korea, in particular on the island of Jeju. In this place, women are the protagonists of a long-standing tradition which consists in free diving in the ocean to gather shellfish such as abalone and sea urchins. The women involved in this practice are called Haenyeo, and this tradition too has been inscribed in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity list. Women have a central role in this community and this practice has allowed them over the centuries to gain an important social status. The practice has always been passed down from mother to daughter, however, nowadays younger generations try to find different occupations and move out of the island.[7] For this reason, now the remaining Haenyeo who still dive to fish are sometimes over 80 years old. Furthermore, this tradition is also considered environmentally sustainable, as shown by the fact that this type of fishing has been done for centuries and has allowed women to be at the forefront of decision-making in natural resources management.[8]

All over the world there are many practices, traditions, cultural heritages that involve fishing or are connected to the coastal and maritime landscape. It is important to highlight this type of heritage not only because it represents the identity and history of a community, but also because it can teach something and can bring to light the role of specific groups or people. In the realm of fishing practices, those that come from the past and have been practiced for centuries, have usually environmentally and sometimes socially sustainable characteristics that could be useful to replicate elsewhere. In other cases, as shown, these traditions may have undergone changes that have further highlighted their importance and significance by being accessible to more social and gender groups. In this context, the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and its list, as well as other projects and instrument can be a vehicle through which these practices are highlighted and if necessary updated or improved in certain aspects.

Maria Grazia Cantarella