A Small Surf Club Is Making A Massive Impact In The Lives Of Bangladesh’s Surf Girls
Live from Bangladesh.
During a conversation with Fernando Aguerre a couple years ago, he got to talking about surfing in developing countries and why it’s so important.
It wasn’t the typical Olympic bluster from the ISA President; it was a fundamental and frank take on why surfing’s proliferation around the world is crucial. And he should know, after all—it was Aguerre and his brother who led the fight to legalize surfing in Argentina in the ‘70s.
“There are communities around the world with perfect waves right out front, and they haven’t experienced surfing yet. They haven’t seen the power that it possesses,” he said.
At its best, surfing is a transformative endeavor. When it lands on foreign shores it can provide revenue, hope, inspiration, and that’s even before amazing impact groups, like Surfers Not Street Children and Waves For Change in Africa, or what Billy “Mystic” Wilmont has done with his small community of Jamaican surfers.
For these kids, learning to surf is much more than a few moments of stoke.
“It’s healthy,” Wilmont told Stab last fall. “It gets the kids good exercise. It occupies their time and keeps them out of trouble. It gives them the confidence they can overcome their fears and rise up. It works on a lot of levels. It’s more than just riding waves.”
For the last 12 years a small but faithful crew have dedicated themselves to turning Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh into a hub for surfing on the subcontinent. But in the Bay of Bengal things are a bit more complicated.
“Basically, I had to teach myself, there were no experienced surfers, everyone just had to learn on their own,” tells Rashed Alam. “A Christian organization had come and given Jafar Alam [the first surfer in Bangladesh] some boards. We had to bring him breakfast or a snack as an incentive to borrow one of the boards he was given. I would wait outside his home for him to wake up to borrow a board. I begged my older brother for money to buy a board from Jafar. Everyone was mainly using longboards, so I convinced him to sell me one of the shortboards. I bought it for 1,500 taka [equivalent to $20]. After that I could surf whenever I wanted and had to teach myself the shortboard.”
“Basically, I had to teach myself, there were no experienced surfers, everyone just had to learn on their own.”
Today, Alam splits time between Cox’s Bazar and Santa Cruz, California, where his girlfriend lives. He still surfs and just got hired as a lifeguard and junior lifeguard instructor in town, realizing one of his many dreams. But his heart remains back home, where he’s founded the Bangladesh Surf Girls and Boys Club.
Limited economic opportunities, social stratification and traditional gender roles have made it exceptionally difficult for the young girls of Bangladesh to pick up the sport. Alam’s hope is that by stoking out young girls and boys these barriers will begin to crumple like a castle made of sand.
“The kids’ families always have setbacks,” he explains. “If it were up to them, their daughters would be married, and their kids would be working. On top of that, the village and community doesn’t understand why they are letting their daughters go into the ocean and surf when they should be home learning to cook and clean. Often the families can’t handle the pressure from the community and discourage their kids from leaving the house.”
“A lot of the senior surfing community became really jealous of the girls and the attention they were getting. Some of the girls had become better at surfing than the older boys and they were feeling threatened by them.”
“Also, a lot of the senior surfing community became really jealous of the girls and the attention they were getting,” continues Alam. “Some of the girls had become better at surfing than the older boys and they were feeling threatened by them. We were having to remind them that they are children and we should be happy that they get the opportunity to surf just like they did.”
Bangladesh’s is not a wealthy country by any stretch. It’s notorious for textile and clothing factories that employ child labor and pay little more than slave wages. Alam’s hoping surfing can combat this too. He tells one cautionary story of a young girl who suffered a facial laceration from a surfboard fin. Fearing she’d never marry, her family reacted to the scar left by shipping her off to a factory, ending her surf life.
“The biggest challenge has been child marriage,” Alam says. “Families can’t afford to take care of their daughters and it’s easy to marry them off. With the pressure that they get from their villages and neighbors it is an everyday battle for the girls. And now that a lot of the girls have become teenagers and started to act like typical teenage girls, who get crushes on boys, it’s made it harder. In our culture, you don’t date, you get married. So, it doesn’t look good when the girls are seen talking to a guy. The whole village will gossip and tell the family and the next thing the family is trying to marry them off, so they can keep a good reputation.”
Consider that for a moment. Consider being forced to marry or shipped off to a factory just because you happen to be a girl with a surfboard. It’s a radical concept considering how far away from that reality the surf cultures of places like Australia and the United States are. The silver lining is that the girls that have remained with Alam’s club are thriving. They’re a beacon of hope for Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s own surf gang.
“Surfing has given them the freedom to express themselves and a seat at the table,” says Alam. “When we were facing a lot of challenges with some of the older surf boys, people from the capital of Bangladesh [Dhaka and Chitagong] started stepping up. Men and women showed us they had our backs and encouraged the girls to keep surfing. It was amazing to see the support from people we didn’t even know. To see our country growing and accepting and encouraging women to do sports and be in the spotlight, it’s amazing.”
Most recently, Alam and his crew of girls and boys were invited to India to compete in their first-ever surf contest.
“The Mantra Surf Club in India hosts a local surf contest every year,” he explains. “This year it is in the middle of August and they invited our girls to come and compete and get to know some of the Indian girl surfers. The leader of the club, Rammohan, spent a month in Bangladesh as a cinematographer filming the girls for an upcoming small documentary on them. He invited them the year before, but we couldn’t come up with the funds for passports, visas and tickets because it was last-minute. Obviously, it isn’t about the competition, we just want them to be with other surfers their age and build relationships with them and have them learn from each other.”
Another perk of the emerging Bangladesh surf scene? Peace. Or at least a moment of sanity. Bordering Myanmar, Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution have been forced to live in camps near the Bangladeshi coast.
“At the moment there are a lot of NGOs volunteering in the Rohingya refugee camps—and they are all getting surfing lessons from local surfers as an outlet,” says Alam.
A safe place to learn to shred; all we need in this world.
As far as what inspired Alam to begin this wild and crazy journey, he’s coming from a pure source of stoke.
“I wanted to be a part of a club where the girls and boys were equal and united. I wanted the boys to learn to respect the girls and not follow the culture we grew up in,” says Alam. “I wanted to make a club where the kids were being responsible and not just being lazy and surfing all day and getting into trouble. I wanted to support them in going to school and get them involved in lifesaving and skating and use sports as a way to keep them from getting into trouble. I also wanted them to have more opportunities that I had as a child. I had to work to support my family at a young age and some of these kids had been working on the beach to put food on their tables since they were four years old. Once surfing and other sports were introduced to them, they began to have a fun childhood. And the kids could have the club as a ‘safe place’ where we would always have their back and they would be encouraged to keep learning.”
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