When most surfers plan their next surf trip, very few people consider Iran as a surf destination, let alone know that there are surfable waves there at all. In September of 2011, Irish professional surfer, Easkey Britton, took the plunge and headed to Chabahar in southern Iran, and became the first woman documented to have surfed in the region of Baluchistan, one of the poorest and traditional regions in Iran.
Words by Leticia Nguyen // Design by Katherine Hall
Hailing from the quaint, coastal village of Rossnowlagh on the northwest coast of Ireland, Easkey says she has been in the sea for as long as she can remember. As the daughter of two parents who both surf, it was inevitable that she would follow her parents into the water and she recalls being put onto a surfboard when she was about 4 years old. Although she doesn’t recollect the experience of catching her very first wave, she vividly recalls her very first wipeout that involved her floundering about in a stiff, old and over-sized wetsuit, swallowing water as she tried to regain her composure. She can still envisage herself when she finally surfaced, seeing her father laughing while she was fuming, most probably at the battering her ego had taken, more so than being freaked out by the experience. “I guess dad taught me it’s better to laugh in scary situations or whenever life throws shit your way and to not take it too seriously.” This valuable life lesson has no doubt proved itself in Easkey’s surfing prowess over the years, as she has gone on to charging big waves in Ireland and abroad.
Easkey’s love for the ocean branched out into her academic pursuits and after finishing with 1st class BSc honours in Environmental Science, she completed a PhD in ‘Environment and Society’, a study that focused on human wellbeing and adaptation to change in fishing communities in Ireland. She is also a founding member of Wellness.org, further demonstrating that the word mediocrity is a word that does not seem to exist in her vocab. Despite the demanding nature of her studies and other commitments, Easkey hatched the idea to head to Iran in search of waves and a glimpse into this foreign land and its culture.
“My family was pretty worried—the news doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of the place, but it’s no good being guided by ignorance or fear.”
The idea to surf Iran was born out of “one of those mad ideas that gets thrown around a bunch of nomadic, adventurous types through a network of friends of friends”, Easkey comments. “The possibility of surf there attracted me and the sense of the unknown, that there might be somewhere that hadn’t really been explored in that context before.”
Once the wheels were set in motion, Easkey began preparing for this trip, which was to be documented by French filmmaker, Marion Poizeau. Naturally, there was plenty of planning and organising involved in a project like this. “It’s hard to filter all the negativity you come across, but I found a great book called Mirrors of the Unseen and I watched Persepolis.” There was also checking out Google earth and swell charts, in addition to the support they had from a tourist company in Iran. “It’s not the easiest place to get to, so we lost a few crew along the way”, she says.
The initial reactions to her plan to travel to Iran were met with skepticism and trepidation back home. “My family was pretty worried—the news doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of the place, but it’s no good being guided by ignorance or fear.” Easkey also says that they were unable to get any support for the trip or the film project before they left. But despite this, Easkey and Marion threw themselves in the deep end to film this life-changing experience.
In a country that still favours men and the women have traditionally a subordinate role in society, I ask Easkey is she thought about the potentially controversial nature of her visit. She tells me, “I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to make sure I was showing as much respect as possible and didn’t give anyone an excuse to condemn women and surfing!”
So after months of preparation, research and planning, Easkey and Marion headed to Iran in September of 2011, which she recalls as being “a big unknown.” Home to one of the oldest civilisations, Iran is a country steeped in history and culture that is rich and complex. While it is dominated by art, literature, philosophy and the religious teachings of Islam, when most people think of Iran, they immediately think of war and conflict with which it is most often associated. But Easkey was taken aback by her first impressions of the country and says, “It’s a stunningly beautiful place. The people, the architecture, art, culture, food. It’s so diverse and the local people are incredible welcoming with great humour and intelligence.”
Easkey wanted to be as respectful as possible to the local culture and the Islamic faith and ensured that she stayed completely covered at all times, including while she was surfing, which was a challenge in the scorching summer heat. Sporting a lycra hijab made my Capsters, a company that specialises in lycra hijabs for swimming and surfing for muslim women, Easkey was able to keep to her head covered while she surfed. The hijab did not seem to hinder Easkey from scoring some waves and she says that the surf was “pretty fun actually!” While they were there at the end of the swell season, everyday there was shoulder to head high surf, with good sandbanks and long stretches of empty beach. Easkey says, “It’s not Indo, but that’s not the point is it? And it’s one of the craziest landscapes I’ve ever surfed in.” While Easkey was truly taken aback by the people and culture of Iran, it seems the locals were equally fascinated by Easkey and her surfing ability and the response to her visit was overwhelmingly positive. Easkey comments that many men and women they spoke to hope that Iranian women would be able to surf there too and were very keen for the ladies to return. Given the notoriety of Iran as a place where violence and political unrest are prevalent, I ask Easkey if she ever felt threatened or in danger. She says that the area where they surfed is right next to the Pakistan border and is a hotspot for smuggling and as such, they had to get special permission from the military. “One last day on the way back from the surf, this camo truck came speeding up behind us, waving us to pull over. It pulled out in front of us and we saw a guy sitting in the passenger seat with a AK-47 in his lap and we thought we were done for!” But their fears were quickly turned around when they realised that the military were simply checking up on them. “When they came over to us they were all smiles, asking if we had enjoyed ourselves and hoped we had a safe trip.”
“I think surfing can be a great equaliser, the ocean doesn’t discriminate. It also offers, in a way, a form of escapism and hope from troubles on land.”
At first, Easkey did not realise the enormity of doing that as a woman, but it ended up being a mind-opening experience, inspiring her and Marion to delve into an even deeper experience. Returning home with fire in the belly, Easkey and Marion developed the project ‘Waves of Freedom’ and will be returning to Iran this September to re-immerse themselves in this country they have come to love. “Basically this is a follow-up project to go more in-depth and tackle social Issues in Iran from the perspective of young Iranian women and girls and their experience of surfing for the first time.” Within this project, Easkey and Marion aim to explore the connection between surfing and women’s empowerment and freedom in Iran. “We will be teaching other girls how to surf and the story will be told from the perspective of the girls who want to participate, what they hope to get out of it, what it feels like, the challenges of being able to do it and how this compares to our notion of surfing as a pursuit that offers a sense of freedom and escapism and how that translated in the context of somewhere like Iran.”
Easkey and Marion are also in contact with and will meet and interview the Minister for Culture and Heritage and the Mayor of Chabahar “They are very interested in how well our initial visit and film were received and for the potential from a tourism point of view too.” Despite the positive feedback both in Iran and back home that Easkey has received, there is always a hater who manages to completely misconstrue the intentions of an experience such as Easkey’s. After reading some pretty spiteful and unwarranted comments online such as “I don’t know why white European women think they can make a difference” and others that accuse Easkey of trying to subvert the culture, etc of Iran, I ask her how she feels about these remarks coming from people who have criticised her accomplishments. “Truth be told, it’s something I have struggled with and been keenly aware of, especially having such privileges in my life and the nature of surf travel—how it can be so exclusive, without touching a place or the people very much at all, or worst it can be exploitative.”
“I think there’s a danger with the notion of imposing ‘western ideals’, but it depends on your perspective and intention—how you view something like surfing. For me, to view surfing as an imposing a ‘western’ outlook is a ridiculous notion. The motivation for this is driven by the desire to pull down some of these ‘veils of the unseen’, to encourage open-minded travel and tolerance, to understand something familiar from a totally different perspective through someone else’s eyes, to push gender barriers. To share a passion and learn from how other people experience something like surfing.”
“I think surfing can be a great equaliser, the ocean doesn’t discriminate. It also offers, in a way, a form of escapism and hope from troubles on land. It can certainly help expand your horizons and test yourself. It’s also about reclaiming what once was very much a woman’s pursuit. If you look at the old engravings made during Captain Cook’s expedition to Hawaii, many of the first surfers were women. It was a sport for ordinary people as well as the Kings and Queens, and at its roots, certainly not a ‘western’ concept.”
“And each and everyone of us can make a difference, men, women, all colours, all nations. It’s great to benefit from the experience, strength and hope of others but still follow your own heart. I think if this project and journey didn’t stir something up then it wouldn’t be so powerful!” When I ask her what the greatest thing she gained from this experience, she says “The importance of traveling with an open mind and an open heart, how foolish and dangerous our preconceptions can be and how humbling it is when those misconceptopns and ignorance are broken down.” Sage-like words we can all take something from, I’m sure. Despite her ever-growing list of achievements, Easkey maintains a humble persona and seems to be constantly seeking ways in which she can reach out to others and is dedicated to improving the current state of the oceans. Currently doing a post-doc research for a global project called “Too big to ignore”, Easkey is collaboratively working toward improving the livelihoods of coastal communities, while promoting small-scale fisheries. I ask her where she sees herself in 5 years from now and she says she tends not to think too far ahead. “Sure, I have endless dreams and maybes and my life right now is full of possibilities, but I don’t know where it will take me and I kind of like not knowing—it means I’m more open to the unexpected and that’s when the really fun, beautiful things happens- when life takes you by surprise.”