Balochistan. The place sounds made up, like something from a terrible Borat sequel. But it’s very real, and it’s very dangerous. The New York Times recently christened Balochistan as “The Scariest Little Corner of the World.” It’s an amorphous blob making up rural and often lawless parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and southeastern Iran. It also boasts the only coastline in Iran that’s even relatively open to swell. In this case, a small 60 mile stretch that faces southwest into the Gulf of Oman, and further out, to the Arabian Sea. It’s remote, it’s rugged, and not somewhere typically visited by Westerners, let alone surfers.
All of this sounded good to Irish surfer Easkey Britton. In 2010, she took time off from finishing a PhD in Marine Science (and towing into beasts at Mullaghmore) to surf this moonscape of a coastline. It was a lark, a chance to see and surf someplace new, a serious adventure. It ended up being the beginning of a brand new surf culture: the women surfers of Iran. French filmmaker Marion Poizeau recorded a short video of Britton riding a few small Iranian waves near the village of Chabahar—a traditional hijab worn over her wetsuit—and posted the clip on the Internet. A handful of Iranian women saw the clip, and they wanted in. They found Britton online and asked her to come back to teach them how to surf.
Britton and Poizeau have since made two more trips to the Chabahar area, and last year, they made a longform documentary about the nascent Iranian surf scene—a scene Britton says is uniquely pioneered by women—called “Into the Sea.” It recently premiered on the international surf film circuit. Intrigued, I spoke with Britton about Iran, and the Waves of Freedom project she co-founded with Poizeau this year, which uses surfing to inspire social change—an organization inspired by the women of Iran.
I’ve always been attracted to offbeat places. Actually, the idea didn't even come from me, it came from friends who like to travel. A friend-of-a-friend who worked for Lonely Planet actually encouraged me to go; he’d been in Pakistan and saw surf there, and he wondered if there was surf around the corner in Iran. I think the reason I first went to Iran was because once I'd looked into it I realized how little I knew about such a huge country. I didn’t even know it had a coast exposed to any waves. I was just curious, really, and excited about the chance to surf waves that had never been ridden before. It was about a sense of adventure. But initially, I hadn't really thought of what that might actually mean as a woman, including about having to be covered and everything. The whole journey, up until right now, has been pretty organic.
“I had no idea there was surfing in Iran. Now I feel inspired. This makes me so happy. There should be more surfing in Iran.” —Setareh, female surf participant, Tehran.
What did you expect you’d find in Iran? Both in terms of surf, and cultural reception?
The first trip was massively eye-opening, we just didn't know what to expect at all, or if we'd even find waves. We ended up getting waves everyday, but nothing spectacular; maybe three foot beachbreak. We only spent a four or five days on the coast. It wasn't until after our short video had come out that we started to get a reaction from the local Iranian community to what we'd done. The motivation to return after that first trip only happened because we'd been invited to come back by other sporting women in Tehran. They're actually part of an Iranian snowboard community, if you can believe that.
They saw the clip on their own?
Yeah, they stumbled across it online, and contacted me and Poizeau. Obviously, they knew about surfing but they didn't realize that it was something they could do in their country. There are all sorts of issues for people in Iran to travel to other countries if they want to try to surf, so the chance of being able to do it in their own backyard was pretty appealing. But it was also quite challenging for these women, because they're from Tehran, from a more open-minded background and wealthy upbringing, and where we were surfing is very remote and rural. When you talk to many Iranians about Balochistan, they'd say “What, you're going there?” It's a different ethnicity and a different sort of religion. It's a whole different culture and social class within Iran.
What was the reaction of the local villagers?
Well, we didn't have the beach to ourselves for very long, that's for sure. For the women who were with us, it was quite brave on their part. It's one thing for me to go to rural Iran and surf as an outsider, but we didn’t know what it would be like for the women from Tehran to do it. There was no blueprint, nobody else had really done that at all. I mean, some male French surfers had come through briefly, many years ago, and there’s a paragraph on Iran in Stormriders, but that’s about it. This was really different.
For the people on that coast, their first impression of surfing at all is of women surfing. And I think the fact that when I went surfing I'd gone through the effort of getting covered up and wearing a hijab worked in our favor and helped it get accepted by the powers that be. Which was very important.
In 2010 [Britton’s first trip] I was mostly surfing way out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, and our guide told us not to worry about a hijab. But I didn't want to give anyone an excuse to think it was something that we shouldn't do. First impressions really matter. Even if it wasn't something I might agree with, because I was traveling in someone else's country, I thought it made sense to respect the culture.
The real challenge was trying to get local girls and women involved. They have much more of an invisible role there. There were key factors that got them interested. One, we just went in and had direct dialogue with the locals, from the village leaders up to politicians, religious leaders, both men and women, everybody. The local community really got on board, and surfing has created a positive impact already. It’s shown that it's something that women can do while still respecting the traditional ways and the hijab. In that way too, it wasn't necessarily brought in as a western sport, it was introduced in a much more culturally sensitive way, I think.
"Catching the wave, especially the first one, really feels like freedom…You feel you can do anything when you catch your first wave… And it’s just the beginning." –Sara, female surf participant, Tehran.
So there’s a burgeoning surf scene in that area now? How do they get boards?
Trying to get surfboards to that corner of Iran was a logistical nightmare. We brought over six beginner boards last year, and then I gathered up as many donation boards as I could this year. The scene has really taken off. We held a cross-cultural workshop, which drew a lot of people from different parts of Iran, where they could meet with each other, and learn how to surf. The locals organized a second surfing workshop themselves after we left. There are at least 20 women and girls in the area who tried surfing, and 30-40 men. In fact, for now, it's a mix of women, young girls, and men and boys teaching each other to surf.
Will this be an annual thing for you?
It's sure turning out that way. It’s just been so incredible to see a surf culture be born right before your eyes. Waves of Freedom actually came from this experience in Iran and in seeing the connection you can have with people through surfing. I guess I always knew about that, but just seeing the reaction that people have from the whole surf experience was amazing. Surfing there has opened up a space where people can share experiences with each other that wouldn’t happen otherwise. And it’s especially inspiring to see that surfing is a tool that women and girls can use for empowerment. I’ve seen the importance of having female role models in places like Iran and India, just because there are still so many barriers for women in these places. What’s truly unique, is that the whole story of surfing in Iran will have been started by women. It's quite incredible really to have a surf history in any nation be led by women.