Gender Beyond Women: Exploring Zanzibari Masculinities for Octopus Closures’ Compliance

By Benedetta Veneroni

I’m Benedetta, a Master student of Environmental Governance at the University of Freiburg (Germany). Below is a brief essay summarising my exploration of Zanzibari masculinities- the chosen focus of my internship with the OctoPINTS team.

What constitutes a man, a fisher and a poacher? Why are young male divers in Zanzibar pointed out as conducting poaching during octopus closures? And are Zanzibari masculinities to be problematised as performing dominance or should they instead be viewed at the intersection between power and oppression?

Through a 2.5 months internship within the OctoPINTS project I got the chance to explore the above questions. My internship led to a journey of discovery of Zanzibari communities, where closures– spatio-temporal blocks on the fishing of octopus – have been adopted to ensure more sustainable extractive practices. Here I followed the OctoPINTS team, tackling the successes and failures of octopus closures and the heterogeneous acceptance of their application in a context of unequal access to resources. 

Within OctoPINTS I got to focus on masculinities, to better understand the drivers of young male divers’ non-compliance and envision ways to ensure a more equitable and sustainable community management of common resources. The pathway to a deeper personal understanding of Zanzibari masculinities started with a scoping review on masculinity studies and their application in small-scale fisheries (SSF), in order to gain a theoretical base for my work. This review, together with a ‘masculinity-focused’ analysis of OctoPINTS fieldwork data from 2019, informed my Agent Based Modelling, aiming at defining potential causes of low closures’ acceptance through the integration of a masculinity variable. Finally, a workshop titled Watery Masculinities was conducted together with Liz Drury O’Neill to present the latest literature at the intersection of fisheries, masculinities and transformations and engage in a dialogue on the meaning of masculinity and its adoption in sustainability research. 

The following blog post aims at sharing the findings of my internship to inform future research on Zanzibari masculinities.

How does one define masculinity?

“What does the word masculinity mean to you?” The latter question kickstarted the workshop on Watery Masculinities, leading to very similar answers in nature. Many participants related masculinity to the societal expectations attached to it. Among others, words like dominance, strength, ego, shame & guilt, toxicity and repression were used, delineating a specific perception of the masculine identity. The latter appeared to be a one-dimensional and static reality, in binary contrast with the feminine and with little space for reinvention. Using a theoretical lens, one could perceive the definitions of the participants as attributes of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1995), a societal expectation towards male individuals to exercise dominance and power over subordinate identities (i.e. women, queer identities and sub-alternate racial and class identities). Nonetheless, since the achievement of hegemonic masculinity has been historically only applicable to white, male, rich, heterosexual, able-bodied identities, this has left a space for a multitude of subordinate masculinities to exist at the intersection of dominance and oppression. 

In the fishery context, social constructions of manhood shaped by the seascape and by the occupational culture of fishing, have been addressed as Maritime Masculinities– a set of globally shared norms linking masculinity to the seascape (Allison, nd). Despite the affinities that one could find among fisheries around the globe, a Maritime Masculinity lens might result in the construction of a singular fisherman identity, one unconscious of the global-to-local intersectionalities of power on which each fishery is constructed. Instead, a Watery Masculinity theory- conceptualising masculinities at sea as watery, changeable and context dependent (Bull, 2019)- represented to me a better-suited instrument to examine Zanzibari divers. 

What constructs Zanzibari divers’ identities?

Male diver catching an octopus

Trying to define the situated masculinities of the Zanzibari divers, without being fully acquainted with the cultural context, has resulted in a recurrent conflict over my biases as a white European woman researcher, only tamed by the use of a forcibly intersectional Watery Masculinity approach. From the analysis conducted over the past OctoPINTS fieldwork (see the blog by Liz Drury O’Neill, 2019) I could come up with a set of behaviours that seemed to be adopted by a small set of Zanzibari divers, attributable at times to dominant patterns of masculinity, at times to subordinate or oppressed identities. The study remains nonetheless incomplete when trying to define Zanzibari masculinities, due to insufficient data and contextual knowledge. The aim is therefore only to introduce the topic of masculinities, to allow for its potential adoption as a lens to further interpret issues of compliance and acceptance across Zanzibari fishing communities.

In my analysis of the qualitative data I discovered that many community members referred to young male divers as the main enactors of poaching and often described them as violent and arrogant. Interviewees shared instances of coercion exercised by the young skin divers over patrolling guards (often community members, among whom women) to silence them after a poaching event. The enactment of physical force and violence over subordinate identities represented to me a clear example of hegemonic masculinity at play. Forms of group identity among young skin divers were described by interviewees as fuelling resistance and illegal resource extraction. The lack of participation in community meetings over octopus closures might have represented an act of resistance of male divers towards authorities. It might also have resulted in the further enhancement of disapproval over closures, given the lack of education received regarding the benefits of octopus’ conservation. 

Nonetheless, the dissatisfaction enhancing divers’ poaching should not only be perceived as fuelled by hegemonic tendencies, but, as reported by interviewees, as the result of poverty, lack of livelihood opportunities and political turmoil. Divers have been particularly described as only relying on fishing, therefore lacking alternative sources of income. The inability of divers to accumulate the necessary wealth to start a family and buy a house reveals the unattainable expectations of masculinity in a patriarchal society exercised in a context of poverty. This renders such masculinities subordinate, because ‘imperfect’ and oppressed. 

The majority of community members interviewed pointed at young male divers as enactors of poaching. This, coupled with the presence of literature relating masculinities with illegal activities at sea (Fabinyi, 2007), might result in a biased perception of the researcher on “who it is to blame”. Therefore, without clear data testifying poaching events, it remains important to consider subjectivities and potential causes leading individuals to blame specific social groups. 

Where do we go from here?

Octopus soup being cooked

My engagement with masculinities has contributed to a deeper personal understanding of the complexities of SSF, pushing me to find the invisible causalities leading to the success and/or failure of community-led conservation approaches. The focus led me to look beyond the idea that ‘gender equates to women’, and forced me to realise the existence of patters of subordination experienced by masculine identities in Zanzibar. 

Nonetheless, the analysis conducted on Zanzibari masculinities reveals only little about the watery nature of young skin divers. A deeper research on the subjectivities of Zanzibari divers should be conducted to better define the reasons bringing divers to poach and inform of potential pathways towards higher community acceptance of closures. Engaging in the Zanzibari fishery context by studying masculinities might represent a hidden leverage point towards a more profound, long-term success of closures. Understanding hegemonic and subordinate masculinity behaviours as well as engaging with men in educational programs on alternative, positive, ecological masculinities (Morgan, 2014) might contribute not only to a more equitable society but to a more sustainable use of the natural environment. 

The Internship was a mandatory part of the Master in Environmental Governance (MEG) at the University of Freiburg (Germany), sponsored by Erasmus+.


Allison, E.H., 2013. Maritime Masculinities – and why they matter for management.

Bull, J., 2009. Watery Masculinities: Fly-Fishing and the Angling Male in the South West of England. Gender, Place and Culture 16 (4): 445–465. Collins, 1990.

Connell, R., 1995. Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fabinyi, M., 2007. Illegal fishing and masculinity in the Philippines: a look at the Calamianes Islands in Palawan. Philippine Studies 55, 509–529.

Morgan M. 2014. Measuring gender transformative change. Penang, Malaysia: CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems. Program Brief: AAS- 2014-41.

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