Wednesday 23 March 2016

Riding the Wave of Feminism: Meet the Female Surfers of Iran

In late 2012, Setareh Mazhari watched something that would change her life. The 26 year old was browsing Vimeo when she came across a four-minute video featuring a hijab-wearing woman surfing in the swelling blue waves off a beach in her home country, Iran.

"Right away I was just like, 'Wow, this is really inspiring,'" Tehran-based Mazhari says. "I'd surfed on holidays abroad as a child, and had always wanted to try it again. In fact, I was about to plan a trip to Bali to have lessons there. I just didn't realise I'd ever be able to surf in my own country."

The woman in the video was 29-year-old Irish adventurer and competitive surfer Dr Easkey Britton—believed to be the first woman ever to surf openly in Iran. "I had just come out of an intense period of competing and was seeking change," she tells Broadly. "What attracted me to Iran initially was simply the sense of adventure, the pull of a place so unknown to me and shock at my own ignorance of such a complex, historically rich, influential and highly politicized part of the world."

Britton first headed there in 2010, with Marion Poizeau, a documentary maker. The region they travelled to, Baluchestan Province, is located on the coast of the Gulf of Oman and borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's a very traditional place, and a region with a checkered history of tribal infighting and drug smuggling. She admits her athletic sponsors weren't keen on the idea of her heading there, and refused to fund her trip. "I think they were fearful about what Iran represented, and had a lack of belief in what was possible," she says. They needn't have been. Dr Britton was met with overwhelming positivity by locals and an idea to encourage Iranians—especially young Persian women—to surf was born.

The pair travelled back a few times to surf in the area, and in August 2013 Poizeau contacted one of Setareh Mazhari's friends, 30-year-old Tehrani champion snowboarder Mona Seraji, to take part in a surfing documentary titled Into the Sea. "Some of my friends and family were a bit concerned when I said yes," Seraji says. "Baluchestan has the reputation of being a dangerous place. However, I wasn't worried, in fact I felt very lucky. It was amazing being able to surf in my own country."

The success of Into the Sea in Iran and countries such as the US and UK led Dr Britton and Poizeau to form Waves of Freedom, a non-profit organization that seeks to use surfing to break down gender boundaries, and to create strong female role models in the sport who are in charge of their communities.

After hearing about her friend's experiences filming Into the Sea, Mazhari got in touch with Dr Britton and began to regularly travel the 1,120 miles from Tehran to Chabahar, the coastal capital of Baluchestan, first to learn to surf with the group herself and then to teach others as part of Waves of Freedom. A surfing community was soon established on Ramin Beach in Chabahar, with workshops open to women and men of all ages.

The uptake of the sport in Baluchestan Province was rapid. The first surf workshop had just under 40 participants. A year on, this doubled to around 80. "A high proportion of beginner surfers at the workshops were female—60 percent," Dr Britton tells me. The women represented a diverse mix, with ages ranging from four to 40, though many are in their 20s, well-educated, and from the urban middle class.

"In this case, surfing is a sport that's been initiated and led by women—that is a bit unusual. Because it's not a traditional Iranian sport and hadn't been done before, there were no rules defining how it could and couldn't be done," Dr Britton says. It is accessible despite gender and other social boundaries. This all means the sport had a very unique meaning and identity attached to it.

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