Easkey Britton: Breaking Down Barriers

Easkey Britton: Breaking Down Barriers
 

Photography courtesy of Easkey Britton.

How it all began.

It started off as a wild idea passed along through friends of friends who also love to explore off the beaten track. When I first heard about Iran, I realised how little I knew about the place or the people, and most of what I did was shaped by preconceptions fed to me by what we hear in the media, which is overwhelmingly negative.  We didn’t know what to expect, and I couldn’t resist that sense of adventure to go explore and possibly find waves with no one.

There was no surf culture in Iran. No one surfing there. Beyond scraps of information about surf and swells and searching Google Earth, I knew so little. I was quite naïve on that first trip, which, in a way, actually left me open to the unexpected in a really positive way. Leaving expectations behind and being open to the unexpected and new experiences can be very surprising in a positive way and shift our perspective of the world so that we can see it from a different angle and become more tolerant and open as a result.

That first visit was really very exploratory [and was] about the search for waves in a little known part of the world’s coast, so we didn’t know what to expect in terms of impact.

The journey, the impact and why we keep going back.

The impact came when [Waves of Freedom Co-Founder] Marion Poizeau released her first short film online, and then it spread like wildfire. There was such disbelief in us and what we wanted to do before we went. Family, friends, strangers and even sponsors [had doubts] that we could succeed, that we would even survive. Pretty much everyone thought we were crazy going there for surf, and most probably still do! [There was] a total lack of support. So we invested in the journey ourselves, which gave us greater freedom even if it was challenging. By sharing the story, we created a global media shock wave with such counter-stereotypical images of how we perceive Iran, surfing, and women! The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The response really surprised us in terms of how many people it touched across cultures and countries. That motivated us to want to explore some issues more deeply, particularly the role of gender in places like Iran and opportunities for women to try a new sport, especially surfing, which is so synonymous with freedom.

The idea to go back last year didn’t come from us, but from other female, pioneering sportswomen from Iran who were excited by the possibility of learning to surf in their own country. That seemed like a story worth telling: the first surfers in Iran, who are women; a surf history that is being shaped by women! And not just in Iran, but in the remotest corner of the country, in Baluchistan, considered by some to be one of the most dangerous corners of the world. The journey became Marion’s documentary Into the Sea, to be released later this year at international film festivals.

This year, the motivation to go back was the belief in following through with anything you start. Sometimes that means just showing up, just being there and showing that it’s not all about you and your next big movie. It’s because you’ve been deeply affected by the experience. The people and the place have gotten under your skin. You care, and this is something you want to be part of. That’s what matters. The challenge for us as a team was getting there. Luckily, the Dublin Embassy are very helpful, but there were issues with other passports and getting visas to visit, and that held up the whole project. I felt so frustrated by bureaucracy this summer, but the intention was good. We put our energy into the vision and got such amazing support, and in the end it exceeded my wildest expectations.

Cross cultures.

My experience of the culture in Iran has been one of incredible welcome and genuine hospitality. It’s such a shame more people don’t know this. It’s such a complex place. The rules can be hard to navigate and understand, and Iran is also very different from its neighbours in the Middle East, with incredible ethnic and cultural diversity roots in ancient Persian civilisation. In the surf region of the south-east, Baluchi culture dominates. The key rule we must follow as women, if we want to surf there, is to respect the hijab and keep our heads and bodies covered at all times. For now, the beach and sea remains and open space for surfing, although we created flagged “surf zones” for men and women during the surfing workshop. That said, in the end, everyone ends up all mixed together in the surf, helping each other out. And because some of the best surfers are female, it’s often women teaching men! I do think, from an official standpoint, and for the development of surfing, it’s crucial that there are now local female leaders in the sport. But there’s no stopping women. In fact, we had almost as many women as men participate in the surf workshop and surf contest this year! And it’s great to see fathers and husbands asking me to take their wives and daughters surfing. We actually ran out of surf hijabs, kindly donated by Capsters, a surf company who specialise in making sports hijabs for Muslim women, and we were asked by the village leaders and dads if we could send more so that more women and girls could go surfing.

The challenges.

The biggest challenges are resources. Trying to get surfboards to that part of the world can be a logistical nightmare. A surfboard supplier and distributor in the Middle East would greatly help! We’d also love to invite a surfboard shaper out there to run a workshop at Chabahar to encourage the local surf community to become more self-reliant. They have access to a lot of the raw materials, so we just need someone willing to join us and go out there! For some reason, although people get very excited about the project, very few people commit to going, either because it seems scary or [because it is] too much hassle. For some countries, getting a visa can be a bit tricky. Unfortunately, this prevented our partners at Cross Culture Surf and Beyond the Surface International from joining us on this trip. The other [challenge] is supporting skills development initially in training surf instructors in water safety, as well as ocean awareness, and it grows in [areas such as] business management, community development, and languages.

The highs.

It’s impossible for me to capture the enormity of this on an emotional and personal level, and when you take a step back from it all, it is pretty mind-blowing. I had the feeling like my heart and soul had been swept away. Just when I think I can’t be surprised, that I can’t open my mind any more, and that my heart can’t be touched any more deeply, something happens that opens my world up even more.

A real high point was seeing young women overcome fear of the unknown, taking that step no one else had and going surfing with me, and then looking back and seeing a group of young kids gathered on the beach copying us, practicing their pop-ups, ready to surf, inspired. Eventually it’s becoming a shared experience with these young women from the city and local people from a part of their country that remains largely forgotten. I’ve seen so many women of all ages, from tiny girls of four years old, to mums in their late 40s, embracing the surfing lifestyle and having it impact them personally in terms of [feeling] a sense of achievement, overcoming fear, feeling energised and alive, and yes, [experiencing] that sense of joy and freedom when it all comes together and they stand up on their first wave. It is an opportunity to explore and push their limits, test their comfort zones in a totally new environment, but one where there is support from other like-minded women and encouragement from both genders, and learn from each other. I never could have imagined it.

It’s really about connection–seeing people who before might have seemed worlds apart come together in shared experience, connecting through a common bond for the sea and surfing. The boundaries are dissolving in water, and it’s such a new and special experience to be part of something at this beginning stage, with no blueprint for how it should be. It allows for great creativity and collaboration.

The Surf Seeds mission.

Our aim was to go back this summer to introduce the Surf Seeds project, an initiative to support the development of surfing, providing more equipment and training, and exploring the possibility of establishing the first surf club. Always our core focus is on creating a safe space for girls, boys, men, and women to participate. It’s essential that women are in no way excluded and that we strengthen the base for women’s in surfing in Iran. There are a few key elements of this story that have set it on this path. The first is the critical importance of the powerful image of a woman surfing, that being one of the first times anyone there has seen someone surfing. Second, it is showing that a woman can surf and still respect the hijab, and, third, it is that all this has paved the way for female role models, leaders and coaches, further opening opportunities for women and girls.  Other factors are communication with all the various actors from the top to the bottom, being clear about our story, what we were doing, and why; creating meaningful relationships of trust; and not giving up. We keep going, even if it’s not perfect, sometimes recognising the need to step back and let go as it takes a life of its own.

The vehicle for change: Waves of Freedom.

Only this year did we formalise Waves of Freedom as a volunteer-led non-profit, inspired by our experiences of the power of surfing to break barriers, connect across cultures, and create positive social impact and sense of self-worth and leadership in one of the most unlikely places in the world: Iran.

Waves of Freedom is founded on the belief in the power of surfing and creativity as a means to break down cultural barriers & gender-based inequalities. It all began with the seeds of surfing taking root in Iran, but we continue to reach out through our partnerships and collaborations to other parts of the world, especially places where it’s not always easy for the most vulnerable in society to follow their passion. And we have some very exciting projects in development next year that need your support! For more information and how to support please visit www.wavesoffreedom.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

You can also follow our friends and the grass-roots community @wesurfiniran for more live updates from the Chabahar Surf Zone!

Closing thoughts.

I always feel when surfing that, despite this being a male-dominated sport, when you are actually surfing, riding a wave, there is no discrimination. The ocean doesn’t discriminate or care if you are a man or a woman. From travelling around the world in such diverse places, [I’ve realised that] surfing can act as a great equalizer and way to connect people through the shared stoke or sense of freedom that it gives, regardless of your background or how many stickers are on your board or not. That sense of creativity comes from the fact that, at its essence, surfing is this creative form of self-expression.

A few years ago, I was alone in the desert, surrounded by empty beaches, facing the Indian Ocean monsoon swells, wrapped in cloth from head to toe, alone.

Fast forward, and now I stand on a beach alive with people of all ages: men and women, girls and boys, from all kinds of backgrounds, from all across Iran and beyond. [There are people of] different cultures, religions, languages, and beliefs, but none of that matters because we all share what matters most.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; Therefore, we are saved by love.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Auntie Rell’s words echo truer than ever. “When you share the bond of the ocean then it’s like you’re blood brother and blood sister,” sea brothers and sea sisters.

A special thank you goes to our Waves of Freedom Ambassadors, Mona Seraji, who is also the Operations Manager, and Shahla Yasini; the surf community of Ramin; and the #werideiniran board sports community of Tehran.

Thank you to our sponsors, Salt Gypsy (surf leggings), Capsters (surf hijabs), Fin McCool Surf School (surfboards), Finisterre and Bundoran Surf Co. (surf accessories), Waveborn Sunglasses, GoPro Iran, Oakley, Jaws Energy Drink, Chabahar Free Zone, and Lacima Clothing, who supported the Surf Seeds and We Surf in Iran initatives in 2014; our partners Beyond the Surface International, Cross Culture Surf; and everyone who has supported the journey so far!

For more information on Easkey Britton, check out her website!

 

Easkey Britton is an Irish big-wave surfer, as well as a pioneer in a place that probably wouldn’t come to mind at the mention of the word “surfing.” A trip to Iran several years ago in search of surf and adventure has taken a hold of Easkey and led her to co-found Waves of Freedom, a non-profit organisation that uses surfing to break down barriers and create positive social change.