Three years ago (2013), surfer and change-maker Dr. Easkey Britton, with film-maker Marion Poizeau, ventured to Iran to document a collaborative initiative introducing surfing to the country with aspiring Iranian sportswomen, Mona Seraji and Shahla Yasini. The story of surfing in the country became one initiated through women, with Easkey holding the honour of being the first woman to surf in the remote Baluchistan region of Iran (and officially afforded the title of, “Mother of surfing in Iran” in 2016!). It wasn’t long before surfing was embraced by the local community, especially ‘Iran’s first family of surf’, the Fuladi family of Ramin, becoming a creative medium for cross-cultural connection and social impact.
Now, in 2016, the sport has reached new heights with Iran yesterday becoming the 100th member of the International Surfing Association (ISA) following the establishment of the I. R. Iranian surfing association, the first and only association of surfing in Iran with official acceptance from Iran’s Minister of Sport and The Young.
It’s evidence of how impactful surfing can be in bringing a community together.
The experience also sparked a shift in Britton’s relationship with surfing, setting her on a path of exploration to better understand the transformative qualities of surfing and the sea and how they could be translated into to how we live and lead. It inspired the founding of the voluntary-led collaborative platform Waves of Freedom, along with Poizeau, in 2014.
Surfing creates a space for connection across cultures, where social barriers begin to dissolve through a shared, immersive experience, where fears are overcome through experiential learning and where a positive relationship with the marine environment is (re)awakened. I believe surfing is a unique lens to facilitate a deeper understanding of the world around us and each other. As Shirin Gerami, a recent addition to the team and Iran’s first female triathlete described it; surfing can showcase the beauty in our differences by allowing us to be truly who we are when we surrender to the playfulness of waves and wave-riding.”
“Surfing can showcase the beauty in our differences by allowing us to be truly who we are when we surrender to the playfulness of waves and wave-riding.”
That said change does not happen overnight. What happens in the water doesn’t necessarily translate to change back on land where cultural norms and social rules are strongly upheld and have been so for millennia. “Who has the freedom to surf?” is a big question and access to coastal spaces and surf breaks are heavily contested around the world (a question driving research by Britton and her colleagues at the University of Waikato, including Belinda Wheaton, Rebecca Olive, Lisa Hunter, Holly Thorpe). When it comes to gender it’s even more complex. ‘Women’ are not a homogenous group and ‘we’ don’t exist in a vacuum – it’s not just about what sex you are but how that intersects with multiple factors from gender to race, ethnicity, geography, sexuality, religion, class that shape our ability to make choices and the actions we take.
Seeing surfing take hold where it wasn’t practiced before means there’s the possibility to do it differently. I think a big factor in its acceptance initially, is that surfing isn’t a formal sport, there were no rules, by its very nature it’s much more play-like and fluid, creative and self-expressive. A different learning approach to surfing evolved in response more to local needs and resources as well as core values of diversity, inclusion and connection. Surfing is not the goal, it’s the tool. Some outcomes have been how we can use surfing to deepen our understanding of the sea and marine environment; as a transformative way to develop leadership skills, build self-confidence and overcoming fear (with our ‘Be Like Water’ programme for women and girls); teaching more collaborative ways of learning to surf through mentoring and a ‘buddy system.’ It’s been a constant learning process and as a result forever evolving.
“Surfing isn’t a formal sport, there were no rules, by its very nature it’s much more play-like and fluid, creative and self-expressive.”
What Waves of Freedom does has expanded beyond Iran (although our collaboration with the fledgling surf community there is long-term and ongoing), to work with other people, institutes and organisations around the world – a growing ‘surf for social good’ tribe, including the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea and their innovative approach to ending violence against women called the “Pink Nose Surfboard” initiative. At the core is understanding the impact of surfing and the sea, especially for women and girls and its potential to empower.
That said the social and environmental issues we witness and experience are a lot more shared than we realise. For me, an important next step is to take some of these learnings back home, to Ireland. If we could look at our relationship with the sea differently and use surfing as a medium to better connect with our self, environment and others – it could be such a powerful thing. It’s an aspect I hope to look at with the National University of Ireland, Galway and the investigating nature-based solutions for health and wellbeing.
My experiences, through Waves of Freedom, have inspired a shift in my relationship with surfing and how it could be used, as a tool or medium for creating connection and addressing deeper social and ecological issues. I feel it comes down to connection – how we create connection and how we create spaces that allow for connection across different worlds, spaces, sectors, breaking out of traditional metrics of so-called ‘success’. Creative spaces that allow us to explore who we are, why we do what we do, how we do it. There are so many examples of this happening already – a coming together of fragmented moments into a real movement in the so-called ‘Surf Social Good’ space. For example through events like; the Surfing Social Hui conference hosted by Waikato University in New Zealand; the Institute for Women Surfers in California; Surf + Social Good Summit in Indonesia; Surfing Medicine International in Europe. And initiatives challenging female representation and identities in surfing such as; The Inspire Initiative; Brown Girl Surf; The Wahine Project; History of Women’s Surfing Museum.
“My experiences, through Waves of Freedom, have inspired a shift in my relationship with surfing and how it could be used, as a tool or medium for creating connection and addressing deeper social and ecological issues.”
I’m excited to see how this growing tribe of ‘wave-makers’ continues to evolve. To see if we might expand our perceptions of what’s possible from a more connected, creative and playful space. And making sure to keep the boundaries fluid so we don’t just end up creating another box for ourselves.
About Easkey Britton
Easkey Britton is an Irish surfer from Rossnowlagh, County Donegal. In 2008 she won her fourth consecutive Irish National Surfing Championship title in Bundoran and in 2009 became the British .Pro-Tour Champion.
Easkey is co-founder of the non-profit Waves of Freedom which uses the power of surfing as a creative medium for social change and spear-headed the world’s first global Surf for Social Good Summit in Bali, Indonesia. A recent graduate from THNK’s Creative School of Leadership, Easkey is an inspirational public speaker – her work and unique connection to the ocean led her to being asked to talk at TEDx Dublin and as a keynote speaker she has presented her work at international conferences, addressed global organisations and published numerous book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals.