Posted on March 09 2016
This week's Wednesday Women is the incredible Easkey Britton ~ surfer, scientist, explorer and co-founder of Waves of Freedom. As the first woman to surf in Iran, Easkey tells us how she is using surfing to break down cultural barriers and gender-based inequalities. Read her inspiring story here:
Bardega: Can you tell us what you were like growing up and where did your passion for surfing came from?
Britton: The sea/surf addiction runs in my family. My name, ‘Easkey' (or ‘Iascaigh’) has its origins in the Gaelic for ‘fish’. It’s also the name of a world-class surf break on the west coast of Ireland - a wave that breaks next to the ruins of a castle; one of my parents favourite waves. Imagine if I didn’t like the water?!
It does make me wonder at the power of naming, and how traditional naming rituals were an important rite of passage historically… And the importance of our he’e nalu or surfing roots - understanding the influence that can have on us, on our decisions, on our story.
As a kid, we’d go on family road trips to my namesake and camp next to the surf break. My little sister and I curled up between our parents in the back of the van listening to the waves crashing on the reef. At first, I learned about the reef, the swell and tides from my time spent in rock pools observing what the sea left behind when it receded and watching them fill in as Dad timed his surf for the pushing tide - trying to make my getaway across the slippy green seaweed we called ‘mermaids hair’ before the sea filled in over my little red wellies. It wasn’t long before I followed my dad out there.
Easky is also one of the first places I learned to surf over reef and were I began to hone a taste for more powerful waves under the mentorship of my dad and the local and traveling regulars who camped out on the coast seasonally or full time, adopting me as their own in the line-up, sharing their water knowledge.
From my mother, I got a passion for travel, for seeking and trying to understand what was beyond the horizon (one of the things I love about surfing is the constancy of the ‘horizon-line’), through different worldviews, spiritual traditions and by going on epic journeys together from a young age.
Bardega: You were the first women to surf in Iran - what made you want to surf there, what was that like and what sort of response did you get ?
Britton: It was 2010, I was coming out of an intense period of competitive professional surfing, and had just begun my PhD in Environment and Society. My sponsors at the time didn’t support me to go, no opportunity to shoot next season’s summer range. More seriously though, I think it was fear of what Iran represented, and a lack of belief in what was possible.
Initially for me it was simply the sense of adventure, the pull of a place so unknown to me and shock at my own ignorance of such a complex, historically rich, and highly politicised part of the world. I was invited to be part of that first trip by a surf photographer/travel writer through a mutual friend who proposed the trip.
Were we perpetuating the neocolonial surf travel myth of the 'discovery’ of empty, unexplored waves? Maybe. And yet, in the end, we were two women, one with her surfboard and one with a small film camera (French film-maker Marion Poizeau)— the only two to make it. The rest of our group dropped out or didn’t make it for various reasons, including our trip organiser. We were on our own.
It was an opportunity to confront my own assumptions about a very misunderstood part of the world, where certain ‘freedoms' are visibly restricted for women. Surfing in a way became the vehicle or lens offering me the ‘freedom’ or privilege of travel.
And we did find surf.
Why was there no surfing there until now? I think its down to a combination of factors. The fact that, politically, Iran had been very isolated from the western world; There is only 60 miles or so of coast in Iran exposed to open-ocean swells/surf near the sea-port of Chabahar in Sistan-Baluchistan province (the main surfing beach is located at Ramin village) - the most underprivileged part of Iran and home to the Baloch, a traditionally nomadic and very marginalised group of people divided between neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s hard to get to - it's a 2 1/2 hour flight from the capital Tehran and a lack of surf equipment, as well as the trade sanctions making it difficult for even affluent Iranians.
It’s been an unexpected and ever-evolving journey since - the story of the first female surfers of Iran, the cross-cultural impact of surfing, the mixing of not just gender but social class, religion and ethnicity, is well documented in Marion Poizeau’s award-winning documentary Into the Sea filmed in 2013.
Considering the history of women in surfing, and the issues so many women face in the Middle East, the emergence of surfing in Iran through women is very interesting and a key factor in the acceptance of surfing as ‘something boys can do too’ (a question I got asked by a local boy watching Mona and Shahla, Iran’s first female surfers, surf for the first time at Ramin).
We’ve engaged in a collaborative process every summer since, co-organising surf workshops with Marion, Mona, Shahla, their network of outdoor and action sport enthusiasts, and the local Baloch community at Ramin. It seems surfing is there to stay now.
Bardega: Can you tell us about what made you start Waves for Freedom and what is your mission?
Britton: It was born out of a realisation and need to deepen our understanding of what we’d experienced with surfing’s ability to connect in the most unexpected ways, in such an unlikely place, Iran. And to shift our relationship with surfing and how it could be used, as a vehicle or platform change, for addressing deeper social and ecological issues. It’s been a constant learning process.
Waves of Freedom (WOF) is a voluntary-led non-profit exploring how surfing and the sea can be used as a creative medium for positive social change and connection across cultures. Founded on the type of freedom Persian mystic and poet Hafiz described as the power of realising our own inner truth and “letting the soul unfurl its wings.” At the core is understanding the impact of surfing and the sea, especially for women and girls and its potential to empower.
Surfing is not just a sport but a lifestyle and an art-form synonymous with freedom and creative self-expression. WOF has grown from a belief that the ocean does not discriminate. So how can we better use the life-metaphor of the ocean as a place/space that is ever-present, yet constantly changing, and by its very nature boundless, dissolving barriers and crossing boundaries?
Bardega: As well as a surfer, you are also a scientist, both of which are considered to be male dominated professions - what has been your experience and what advice would you give young girls looking to follow in your footsteps?
Britton: There has been a shift in my position both as surfer and scholar as the depth of my experience has grown year on year through my relationship with others, especially since my first visit to Iran in 2010. My deep involvement with the process of the initial co-creation of a ‘surf space’ in Iran and being culturally immersed is similar to the experiences of other female scholars in lifestyle/action sports culture, including surfing, such as Rebecca Olive, Belinda Wheaton, Dr Lisa Hunter, Holly Thorpe, Georgina Roy to name a few, which influence interpretations of our experience.
I’ve begun to take a more reflective and participatory activist approach, which is helping me to see below the surface of my experiences as both surfer/participant and researcher/observer, and the interplay and inherent dynamic tensions of these multiple identities, not unlike a dance or the movement of waves through the surface tension of the ocean itself.
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, and break-out of silos. Spaces that allow us to explore who we are, why we do what we do, and 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 Surf for Social Good space, for example through events; the Surfing Social Hui conference I just co-organised in New Zealand last month; 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.
What advice do I have? Be unafraid to declare who you are and give expression to that.
Bardega: What are you up to now and what does the future hold ?
Britton: 2015 was my year of ‘grit'; one of the most challenging and also transformative years. 2016 is about being present, grounding, focusing the wild energies that were swirling around - my year of ‘grace’.
I feel like I’ve weaving a meshwork, bringing together those different aspects of who I am in a more harmonious, focused way - to better serve my environment and society. For example, I’ve developed a curriculum for high school and college students on Engaged Global Citizenship in Haiti with the Sea State this summer.
Surf for social good collaborations with the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea and their ‘Pink Nose Surfboard’ initiative as an innovative approach to address women’s rights and violence against women. With Waikato University in New Zealand where I had the privilege of co-organising the Surfing Social Hui conference, challenging and re-imagining surfer identities. Documenting stories of people and the sea for my surf sponsors Finisterre. And right now, we’re celebrating International Women’s Day/week with some creative and collaborative events with the Treehouse on Maui.
WOF is also planning a return trip to Iran this year to further develop our ‘Be Like Water’ (BLW) programme with Shirin Gerami, Iran’s first female triathlete. BLW helps us reconnect with the ocean/water, teaches valuable water safety skills, ocean awareness and builds self-confidence. We hope to do that in May and are putting a call out for donations to help fund the training/trainers and equipment, etc. we need to make that happen. (See link at bottom of interview if you would like to help support the programme by donating).
Next month I start a new research fellowship with National University of Ireland in Galway, working with an interdisciplinary team on a project that seeks to explore nature-based solutions for health and well-being, and I’m especially ‘blue spaces’!
At the core of what I do is helping people better understand each other and the environment through our connection with the sea. Exploring how we can use the unique qualities of surfing and the sea as a tool for social change.
Bardega: You are a role model for many young girls but which women have inspired you and why?
Britton: There are so many awe-inspiring women out there to be celebrated on International Women’s week and every day after that, always.
It’s so important to have platforms like this to be able to give voice to the diversity of role-models out there.
Hawaiian ‘surf queen’ auntie Rell Sunn; Irish artist Pauline Bewick; my Mum; my sister; the big wave tribe of women, especially Sarah Gerhardt a pioneering big-wave, cold-water surfer and the first women to ride Mavericks; women breaking boundaries in their sport like Shirin Gerami; the amazing young women I meet almost every day using their passion for social good.
Bardega: What advice would you give a younger Easkey ?
Britton: Well what I’d tell an older Easkey is to remember the younger Easkey!
Remember to slow it down; breathe; practice self-care; be kind to yourself, you are not unbreakable and therein lies your strength; your strength comes from stillness and nature. Don’t neglect the joy and passion for cultivating art and spiritual practice. Paint, play, be creative, be wild!
To donate to help support what Easkey does, please visit here.
CWS-Ireland - David Gray / Finisterre