Surfs like a girl

Hello International Women’s Day, 2015!

Today I’m thinking of sea sisters across the globe who are making waves promoting gender equality through surfing.

Tonight, Dr Easkey Britton*, co-founder of Waves of Freedom is celebrating surfing’s International Women’s day in partnership with The Inspire Initiative by staging an event in Southern California to promote the work already underway and discuss what can be done in the future. 

The UN’s theme for #IWD2015 is, “Empowering women, Empowering humanity. Picture it!”

…and what I’m picturing today is what Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, one of my new spiritual homes, would look like full of local female surfers…

Surfing in Sri Lanka

Last year I learned to surf in Arugam Bay, Eastern Province, Sri Lanka.

Taking a walk near to my new base-on-the-beach in Sri Lanka

As a well-established surfing destination Arugam Bay attracts an international crowd of surfers and tourists each year. 

According to the reigning surfing champions and old surfing masters of the Sri Lankan East (fascinatingly mainly from one family) they are now into their third generation of local surfers, but there remain no sign of local female surfers; surfing is for boys, or western women, only.

Waves of Freedom

Whilst reflecting on the surfing situation in Sri Lanka, I came across the work of Dr. Easkey Britton and her organisation, Waves of Freedom

Tuning into her talk, ‘Just Add Surf’ at TEDx Dublin, I was struck by the work she was already doing in Iran – watch her documentary ‘Into the Sea’, available on iTunes – and would soon be revisiting in Papua New Guinea to establish a surfing culture blind to differences in gender, class, age, religion.

Surfs like a Sri Lankan girl

Every year, Sri Lanka is host to the Red Bull ‘Ride My Wave’ surfing contest. What would it take for future events to host events for both male and female titles, with both male and female local competitors lining up to take the waves? 

What would my Sri Lankan friends think of this idea? Would the women laugh harder or just as hard as the men?

Will future versions of this picture show mixed groups of local men and women, ready to compete?

 Photo Credit: (c) Chee Boon Pin / Red Bull Content Pool

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

Let’s back up for a moment – why do I think this is important? Aren’t these communities okay, left to develop in the way that they will, at the pace that they will? Why intervene, why disrupt the status quo?

I think it’s important because of my own experience of learning to surf. 

Over the previous ten years, following a series of losses – the like of which many of us will experience in life – I’d been diminished into a life of relatively joyless working routines and I’d simply stopped thriving. 

Living by the ocean, in Jersey, Channel Islands, I was ignorant of the bliss of surfing as a sport. I was living to work, working to live and I’d lost sight of most of the things that had previously thrilled me. And then I got lucky. I got out. I escaped the trap my life had become and flew away to Sri Lanka to volunteer in their war-torn North. After a few weeks I headed to the beach and took my first surfing lesson. Hated it, loved it, found I couldn’t cope a day without it.  

I was completely hooked, all totally by mistake. Even though I’d been a teenage skydiver, I was more afraid of surfing, and my inability to do it, than I had been of anything – and that was so deeply compelling.

Walking wave watchers: Photo Credit (c) Jessica Balla

I found surfing and I found the ocean, a wilderness that had the power to heal me, humble me, free me, thrill me, fill me with joy. With this  joy came connection to an international and local community of surfers who cheered me on in the water, no matter how much I fumbled and fell about trying to catch the easiest of waves. 

A community who saw my growing passion for the ocean and embraced me unconditionally, no matter how different our backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences. 

If my experience was this profound, what is the potential for the women who come from a society where there is radical inequality between the sexes, where there are relatively few individual freedoms, in a country which has only recently emerged from a 26-year civil war and only 10 years ago experienced a devastating tsunami?

Surfing a sexy sport?

Surfing is a sport often epitomised by tough men and often focuses, sadly, on the sex appeal of its female competitors. 

There seems to be a great opportunity to reinvent the role of women in such a sport when doing so from within a culture where the women themselves will insist on being as covered up as possible. 

I have an image of the strong and demure female surfer, ripping it…

Questions and Wonderings

What does successful social change through surfing mean?

How will female role models play a part?

Is the success of the introduction of surfing to local women and girls to be judged by its longevity?

Is it more challenging to introduce surfing to women and girls in a region where there is already a strongly-established surf culture amongst the men?

What resources, and management of those resources, are needed to enable women and girls to practise surfing at their leisure, on a long-term basis?

If boards were provided specifically for women and girls, how do you make sure they are made available for those women and girls?

How do you de-colonialise surfing as it is adopted into new regions or amongst new participants? 

How do developing communities who want to foster surf tourism develop an industry that successfully preserves and respects their own culture?

*The Mayor of Santa Cruz, California, has just given Easkey her own day for the work she’s doing to bring women of the world to the water, by the way!

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