Gaza City – The world may not know her name, but anyone who has visited Gaza’s seaport will recognise Madleen Kullab.
The daughter of a fisherman, 22-year-old Kullab is the only female fisher in Gaza. It was not her choice to follow her father’s path: As a child, she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, but the winds do not always blow as the vessels wish.
The first time Kullab took to the sea with her father, she was just six years old. After her father was diagnosed with acute myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, he lost his ability to work. Kullab, then 13, made the unusual decision to pick up her father’s fishing gear.
“The first time I went fishing by myself, on a motor boat, was frightening … but I picked it up pretty quickly,” Kullab told Al Jazeera, while sitting on a cement step at the edge of Gaza City’s fishing harbour.
As a 13-year-old girl, Kullab faced multiple challenges, including the physical strength needed for the job and the community’s scepticism towards her role in an industry dominated by men.
The best way to combat such criticism, she found, was to showcase her fishing prowess. She learned by heart all the different types of local fish, the best times to cast a line, what kinds of rods and hooks to use, and what types of fish are most affordable for Palestinian families in Gaza: “Sardines, definitely.”
At night, Kullab prepares her nets. In the morning, she pulls her boat out into the water. As the waves slap against its sides, she casts her net into the sea, hoping to make a sufficient catch to feed her six-member family and put some out for sale.
Although male colleagues initially belittled her, Kullab says she eventually proved herself through the amount of fish that she caught: “Some of them said that I must have a supernatural power that helped me,” she said with a wide smile.
Her unique position as Gaza’s only fisherwoman has inspired many journalists, both local and foreign, to cover Kullab’s story. The attention made some of her male colleagues envious in the beginning, she said, but over time she earned their respect.
“They all treat me now as a sister or a daughter,” she said.
Kullab has viewed fishing first as something she was forced into, then as a passion, and now as a profession at which she excels. But amid Israeli-imposed limits on Gaza’s fishing areas, the job has become dangerous, and Kullab is pursuing a secretarial diploma to give herself another option in the territory’s limited job market. She tries her best to balance work and classes, although nothing beats her love for the sea: “I have become part of the sea.”
Like the rest of Gaza’s 4,000 fishermen, Kullab has struggled to make ends meet in the Israeli-defined six-nautical-mile fishing area to which they are limited – a limit that was raised just last year to nine nautical miles, then reduced back to six after less than three months. The result has been a decimation of the local fish population.
“We used to have 4,000 tonnes of fish of different types. They were sufficient for the needs of the Palestinians in Gaza, and we exported the rest to the West Bank,” noted Nizar Ayyash, the head of the Palestinian fishers’ syndicate. “We now have only 1,500 tonnes maximum of fish, and they are barely enough to meet the local market’s needs.”
would not differentiate between a boat with a man on its deck or a woman. Whoever attempts to come closer will be shot at directly.”]
When they stray outside of this zone, fishermen have been fired upon with live ammunition, had their equipment seized or been arrested by Israeli forces. Kullab has experienced such harassment on multiple occasions, noting that her boat has been shot at directly, and she has been screamed at through a loudspeaker by the Israelis in broken Arabic: “Go from here, you girl!” Such incidents have forced her to flee back to shore, even when she was empty-handed.
“They would not differentiate between a boat with a man on its deck or a woman,” Kullab said. “Whoever attempts to come closer will be shot at directly.”
According to the human rights group BTselem, about 95 percent of fishers in Gaza live below the poverty line. Kullab herself earns just 500 shekels ($135) a month, although her income may fluctuate based on weather conditions, Israeli naval policies and the availability of fish.
“It is very disappointing [on the days when you] go home with zero fish,” Kullab said.
Fuel to operate fishing boats is also quite expensive, and Israel has forbidden the entry of key boat maintenance materials and spare parts, including fibreglass, rendering one of Kullab’s favourite boats useless.
Apart from her work as a fisher, Kullab also offers her services as a tour guide, taking families on short sea tours, especially during the hot summer season.
And although she is looking for a way out of the industry, in the meantime, Kullab says she would love to see other women from Gaza follow in her footsteps as a fisherwoman.
“I’d love to see more women joining me in this career,” she said. “This would help to lift the burden [of social pressure and criticism] from my shoulders.”