Honoring Women Surfers & Individual Freedoms

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Farhana Huq was only twenty-four when she started her first non-profit called C.E.O. Women, dedicated to helping low-income immigrant and refugee women to become entrepreneurs.

Now, ten eleven years later, she in no longer running a non-profit and is on an expedition to find trailblazing female surfers around the world.  At first glance, this may seem like an exercise in sports, but dig deeper and you’ll find that Farhana is diving into one of the critical social justice issues of our time: the rights of women’s – and girls’ - bodies, the rights to be free from cultural and social constraints on women, and a search for healing in the presence of war/violence.

Although this week’s election was a victory for women in our U.S. Political system, the conditions for women remain daunting, globally. It should be noted that Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has stated that she will not resume her post in the 2nd Obama administration to put all of her energies towards the realities of women and social justice, globally.

When I first heard that the most powerful woman in the world (Hillary Clinton) was stepping down to leverage her power towards global women’s issues I remember gasping. When Farhana Huq told me of her exploration called Brown Girl Surf, it took my breath away.

Last week the United States was in great debate, often in an uproar, over the suggestion that rape was essentially “God’s Will”.  We voted that idea out. Yet, every day a woman in the world is experiencing the dangerous use of “God’s Will” as it relates to her body; from being cat-called to the paradoxically reversed “Honor Killings”.  It was reported this week that a young woman was killed by both her mother and father for looking at a boy – they apparently beat her and then poured acid on her body (Source: http://huff.to/TGv8ls). This young girl died, yet many are not dying for looking at boys: many, are surfing.

Farhana, a graduate of Tufts University, Ashoka Fellow, champion martial artist, dancer of North Indian Kathak and Tahitian Ori traditions, and all around luminous overachiever, walked away from the fast lane of social entrepreneurship this year to surf - and to pursue a new project.  She’s on a search to find women who are, as she states, “Surfing Possibility”.  She founded a project called Brown Girl Surf (named in honor of the first Polynesian female surfers) and is starting the process of meeting scores of surfing girls and women hidden in the margins.

Farhana has said about her foray into surfing, “I had a strong desire to reconnect with my health and my body. I took my first trip to Hawaii and decided on a whim to take a surf lesson there. Nobody in my family had ever done this. I had always wanted to learn. I sucked. I mean, really sucked. I tried a few more times over the years to learn but was frustrated. But, I was determined and decided to go to Costa Rica for three weeks to learn to surf. I was still horrible at surfing. I paddled out into the ocean, on my second day at Costa Rica, when a huge wave came and broke on me and dragged me halfway to shore.

My board hit me over the head and left me with a huge bump. I became terrified of the power of the ocean for those weeks but when I came home, I yearned for the feeling of being in the water. So I started braving the cold Northern Californian waters and was soon catching waves on my own. Before I knew it, I started traveling around the world in search of waves. Something felt so empowering about being able to maneuver through the ocean, catch a wave and ride it.”

Farhana’s experience of overcoming fear was a powerful part of her process to becoming a good surfer. Though, her identity as an American of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage started to rise up as well: she was surfing with very sweet, cool white dudes in San Francisco, California – yet when in other parts of the world  she was told by surfers (as they paddled in Indonesia) that by surfing in the bright sun they were making their skins darker and that they had only a finite time to be in the ocean before they had to get out, permanently.

Yet again, the women Farhana was meeting were not getting out of the water. Undaunted by the cognitive dissonance of her experiences, Farhana chose to listen a bit more closely: in doing so she learned that there were more female Surf communities popping up Bangladesh, China and even on the front lines of the war zone of the Gaza strip.

Farhana went from Intrigued to determined.  Utilizing her experience in social entrepreneurism, she is taking to the road to meet as many, diverse women and girls who surf — or, any woman who surfs with the aims towards individual freedom – as she can.

As she states, “Aside from the fact that surfing is really cool, why do I care about these stories? . . . To me, these stories matter because they represent living in possibility, and I think this is a message we all need to see more of in the world. We need to know about Argentina’s first female big wave surfer who picked up a surfboard at the age of twenty and then surfed every major big wave by the time she was thirty. This represents possibility.   

We need to know how Ishita, a journalism student at a college in India, picked up a surfboard and ended up moving to the coast to teach surfing to her community where women just don’t do that . . . We need to know how the fifteen-year-old girl in Gaza manages to break tradition and surf past the age of fifteen into her adulthood. It’s her way of saying, ‘nobody will have control of what I do with my body.’  That is possibility . . . It’s like a domino affect to social change.”

This month, although her Visa to India has suddenly been systematically rejected,  and despite her being able to produce all necessary paperwork asked of her from the Indian government, Farhana still hopes to leave on a trip that takes her to India and Bangladesh to meet these young women. She also wants to visit the Gaza Strip, China, Sri Lanka and all global hot-spots places with waves.

She is desperate is to bring back the stories of these trailblazers and share with the world what they teach us about “living in possibility”: that the ocean is healing to these young women she meets, that young women on boards are becoming eco-advocates, and that a movement of defying arranged life choices is on the rise.

I love to imagine Farhana sitting on a board with these women around the world.  What horizon line do they see? What talk of the reality of the moment, and the braving of the waves do they share?

Most critically, when the moment is right, how wide are their smiles as they shred a killer wave?

Surfing has just become, truly, radical.

Top Photo Credit: Bangladeshi Surf Club