“It’s a revolution. Everyone rides the waves together in Ramin. There are no boundaries based on gender,” says Italian photojournalist Giulia Frigieri about an unlikely community of pioneering female, Muslim surfers at a beach in the small Iranian village.
Frigieri learned of the unique surfing scene after watching a trailer for Marion Poizeau’s award-winning 2014 documentary Into the Sea about Waves of Freedom, a nonprofit organization that helps empower girls and women through surfing in the poorest parts of Iran. Inspired, she packed her camera and headed to the remote region of Baluchestan, on the coast of the Gulf of Oman and bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, and decided to capture the women featured to further highlight their story.
The surfing scene in Iran was virtually nonexistent before blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Irish surfer Easkey Britton jetted to Iran in 2010. Donning a swim-friendly hijab, she hopped on a board, and became the first woman to surf in the country. The local villagers watched in shock – no one had surfed there before. The trip led to Britton launching Waves of Freedom with Poizeau.
“Through the delivery of a surf initiative in Iran with pioneering young sportswomen, surfing has become a sport initiated by women, as well as a medium that challenges and connects across gender, class, ethnic, and religious divides within the country,” explains Britton about the success of the project.
She returned to the country three years later, this time as a gender role model and surf teacher. Her students included snowboarder Mona Seraji and swimmer and diver Shahla Yasini, who went on to become the first female Iranian surfer. Britton, Seraji, and Yasini formed a women’s surfing team and began teaching other women, girls, and boys, creating a new community in the process.
Attracted to the idea of the positive opportunities offered to the young generation in Ramin, Frigieri established a relationship with Yasini and decided to make her the protagonist of her photo story. “Despite the language barrier, we had a great connection,” Frigieri says. “She eventually forgot that I was there with my camera shooting her.” The friendship led Frigieri to capture a more natural and candid point of view. “The more time I spent with the surfers, the more I realized that this was a positive story that had to be told,” she adds. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this could inspire similar initiatives in completely unexpected places?”
Through the project, Frigieri witnessed a movement that could help break, or at least blur, social barriers. “What Easkey and Shahla did was start a mini revolution, helping a region like Baluchestan, and Iran in general, to open up, step by step. They offer tools for change to its youth while attracting people from the rest of the country and spreading the word.”
While the surfing scene in Ramin is rudimentary compared to surf capitals like Hawaii or South Africa, its efforts are incredibly powerful. The Islamic republic has banned women from attending men’s sports events – they’re not even allowed to ride bicycles in public – so the surfers are pushing boundaries. According to Iranian law, women must also be covered from head to toe, even when participating in sports, and the absence of modest swimwear is a challenge the surfers face, especially with maneuvers. “The lack of mobility prevents women from moving quickly and feeling comfortable in the water,” Yasini says – but getting men to support their movement was an even bigger challenge. “A very male-dominated mentality is the greatest obstacle, especially here in Baluchestan,” she explains. “We have to face and fight against it.” But fight against it they do, as Frigieri’s pictures show – Yasini looks at peace among the waves. “It makes me feel rich and happy,” says the 28-year-old lifeguard. “I’m proud to have been a pioneer in this field and to be a limitless woman who follows her heart. It’s my passion.”
The Baloch people are also starting to embrace the scene. “They are very supportive of me and the new surfing community,” she adds. “Hospitality is what they are known for.” Although still young, the Persian surfing scene is slowly finding its audience through social media exposure and word-of-mouth. Young Iranians from all over the country come to Ramin to try surfing, blending with the local community. “It’s working towards a better future,” says Frigieri. “It’s creating an empowering tool for young people seeking for alternatives for themselves and future generations.”
“Surfing is more than just a sport,” adds Yasini, who plans to surf in New Zealand one day. “I hope the scene will develop and that this generation will pass it on to the next. As women have always been struggling for their freedom, I want them to ride a wave to feel true freedom.”
Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.