Into the Arabian Sea
Into the Arabian Sea
Sowing surf culture in Iran with Easkey Britton
Story by Lauren L. Hill
Easkey Britton is the first woman in known history to surf Iran’s Baluchestan Coast. She’s also a bit of a modern renaissance woman: a PhD in Environment and Society, tow-in charger at waves like Mullaghmore, founder of the NGO Waves of Freedom, filmmaker, and most recently, organizer of the Surf + Social Good Summit.
Dr. Britton was initially drawn to Iran in 2010 when she’d heard about the likelihood of finding surf there. Growing up in Ireland, she was accustomed to uncrowded surf and challenging conditions. Led by curiosity and an open mind, Easkey ventured into the craggy Iranian landscape that was once the heart of human civilisation in the ancient world: the nucleus of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Today, the Baluchestan region is better known as “The Scariest Little Corner of the World” for its violence, drug trafficking and the clashing of cultures where Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet.
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Despite the region’s ominous reputation, Easkey found not only surf, but a hospitable culture eager to grow a surfing community of its own. She subsequently collaborated with pioneering Iranian snowboarder Mona Seraji and set up Iran’s first surf club. It was populated almost exclusively by women, at first, until local boys realised that surfing was something they were also able and allowed to do. Still, the story of surfing in Iran is founded by the experiences of women and girls. The budding Iranian surf culture will continue to be shaped by them in a way that is perhaps more inclusive than most anywhere else on the planet, despite a climate of gender-based discrimination.
Dr. Britton’s experiences in Iran birthed her NGO Waves of Freedom (which uses “the power of surfing as a means to break down cultural barriers and gender-based inequalities”) led her to establish the world’s first Surf + Social Good Conference. The event brought some of surfing’s brightest and most engaged minds together to develop a collaborative plan for using surfing as a tool for positive social and environmental change.
SW: Why Iran? Why share surfing with women there?
EB: Initially it wasn’t intentional, in that I didn’t really consider the impact the combination of being a woman, covered in a hijab, surfing, and Iran might have until after that first trip in 2010.
Iran is a fascinating country, and women hold a complex and misunderstood place in contemporary society. I was inspired to learn from other young female athletes who were already breaking ground in their own country – leaders in sports like snowboarding, wakeboarding, skateboarding, and diving.
There was already this whole scene I knew nothing about that seemed to challenge a lot of notions about “the oppressed woman”. And I wanted to learn from Mona and Shahla what it would be like to share our passion and to surf for the first time.
Did your experiences in Iran spark the idea for the Surf + Social Good Summit?
It certainly opened up new doors of possibility within me. It radically transformed my personal relationship with surfing and ultimately is the seed for all that has come since - Waves of Freedom and the S+SG Summit, growing from the belief in the positive impact that can come when we tap into the unifying power of surfing to create connection.
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Surfing has a rich history coloured in neo-colonialism, spreading or enforcing Western ideals and values. The shadows of surf culture sometimes perpetuate drug trafficking, prostitution, coastal development, and other questionable environmental practice. Overall, do you feel that surfing has a positive impact, culturally speaking?
There is certainly a real dark side to surfing when it’s “exported” in this new colonial way, and that we can destroy the very thing we are seeking. Tara Ruttenberg and Pete Brosius gave a really excellent talk on decolonizing sustainable surf tourism at the Surf + Social Good Summit, asking the hard questions: who benefits? Who are we saving the waves for? How about asking people what they might need or want or what their vision is? The need to listen more, ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing.
And having the event at Bali was a reminder of those challenges we face as surfing develops too rapidly or not in a conscious way. There are huge issues of pollution, cultural friction, over-development, etc. and yet, meeting people like Asian and Indonesian female surfing champion Bonne Gea from Nias at the summit was a reminder of just what a positive impact surfing can have – for personal development, but also how it inspires change for others and communities – valuing the ocean in a positive way, strengthening connection across cultures, creating opportunity.
Mainstream surf culture presents its own challenges in its narrow representation of women and girls. Do you share mainstream surfing media, films, etc. with your learn-to-surfers?
The kids at the local school in Ramin are all plugged into the Internet and are no doubt searching for content as it’s the only place to access surf knowledge, except for when we run the surf workshops. There is no surf scene or culture there, yet. Waves of Freedom’s aim, in partnership with the grassroots foundation We Surf in Iran (founded by one of Iran’s first women of surf and pro snowboarder - Mona Seraji and her crew of friends) is to try to help guide it in a way that allows local people to take ownership of it and decide what best fits their own sense of self.
One of the young guys who joined the cross-cultural surf workshop from Tehran last summer is already teaching himself how to shape boards from YouTube videos. People there are so creative, they have to be.
It’s about encouraging diversity, sharing and showcasing different perspectives and voices beyond what conventional, mainstream surf media has to offer and it’s very narrow definition of what it means to be a man or a woman who surfs (typically western, white, blonde, physical prowess and/or sexiness).
It’s about redefining who we are as surfers, what that means for us across all these cultures and different places. This was a core topic at the Surf + Social Good Summit, that speakers like activist Cori Schumacher, academic Belinda Wheaton and social entrepreneur Danny Clayton drew on to create some very interesting dialogue emphasising the power of reclaiming our stories, telling our own stories.
One of the greatest things about social media and technology, is our ability to freely leverage it to share ideas and it make it accessible to all. It’s a new way of doing, a new way of storytelling, and it’s so important because lack of female role models in media is a huge issue for women and girls participation in sport in general, globally.
Can you sum up your experience and outcomes from the 2015 Surf + Social Good Summit?
When we’re so driven by passion we can forget how important it is to reach out. It’s not a sign of weakness but of strength — by coming together and acting collectively, creating meaningful connection we can bring about far greater impact.
That’s what happened in Bali at the world’s first global Surf + Social Good Summit in May.
The summit brought together a diverse mix of people from across the spectrum of surf for social good; from surf industry, social enterprise, academia, civil society, and non-profit to connect and collaborate to find meaningful, effective solutions and strategies applying surfing as a tool for sustainable social impact. Our goal was to create the spark that fuels an awakening for collaborative, innovative social development.
But it wasn’t about telling people what they need to know or should do, instead it was about creating a transformative space where people could show up as they really are, with a willingness to be challenged and inspired by very different perspectives. It was about fostering connection that would lead to more meaningful collaboration, bridging the gaps imposed by a siloed world, getting insights into each other’s universe.
The process itself became the outcome - to draw from the metaphor of surfing, the magic that can happen when we commit to the drop even though we have no idea of the outcome, being fully aware in the moment - leaving the outcome to the unknown. The ability to take that risk, it comes from passion and connection.
Join the conversation: wavesoffreedom.org
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