This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.It's a festive weekend in Morocco. The day after Eid, in early April of this year, the beach of Oudayas in Rabat is bustling with activity. Amid family reunions, amateur football matches and tourists, dozens of surfers are in the water, waiting for the right wave.
Randa El Amraoui is a 31-year-old language and communication professor. Her hair still wet, she leans on a plastic table, chatting under the umbrellas of the local surf club. El Amraoui has been surfing for eight years. “It was a childhood dream of mine, ever since I saw female Hawaiian surfers on Disney Channel,” she jokes.With its massive, 3,600-kilometres-long coastline, Morocco has earned itself a reputation for great surf spots in recent years. Long dominated by men, the sport has slowly been opening up to women, especially in the past five years, according Chadi Lahrioui, multi-time surfing champion of Morocco and Africa and the manager of a surf club on Oudayas Beach. El Amraoui credits Instagram posts showing foreign and local girls on the waves for making the sport has become more popular in the country.
Zainab Rabbaa, 24, from Meknès, has always been athletic. A long-time swimmer and football player, Rabbaa discovered surfing when she moved to Rabat for a PhD in applied arts. “I really got hooked the first time,” she says. “It was a friend who suggested it.” She’s trained every week since. Her next step: a vacation in Taghazout, a seaside resort in southern Morocco known for its waves.
Although the sport is growing in popularity among women, being a woman on the beach in Morocco often comes with complications. “When I go with just a female friend, we sometimes meet hostile people,” Rabaa says. “But if I go with a guy, everything is fine.”Once she puts on her wetsuit, though, the dynamics often change. “When people see you with a surfboard, they don't approach you, there's no more sexual harassment," adds El Amraoui. “Either they think you're wealthy and belong to one of the surf clubs, or they assume you're there just to train and not to flirt.”
The occasional disapproving glances of beach-goers aren’t the only considerations weighing on female surfers. Their families often worry the sport is too dangerous for women. “In the beginning, my family was completely against me surfing because they were afraid of the water,” El Amraoui recalls.Rabbaa also had to engage in some delicate negotiations with her family to surf. “Parents of girls who have never left the home alone or travelled inside the country are often very fearful,” she says. Her parents never really tried to stop her, though, because she’s been very independent from a young age. “I’ve been wanting to go out by myself since I was little,” she says proudly. “I took my first trip at 20. I went to the beach, so they got used to it." Besides, families “are more afraid of men”, she adds, “than of waves”.
Ines Tebbai is a 17-year-old rising star among Morocco’s professional surfers. I meet her in her family’s apartment in Casablanca, just a few hundred metres from the sea, where a number of surfboards are displayed in the living room, medals and trophies blanketing the shelves. Tebbai is still in high school, but she’s enrolled on a distance learning programme and studies independently. In two years, she’ll study in the Canary Islands, Spain. “If I go abroad, I’ll get a residence card, travel around Europe, and become more experienced,” she says, hopeful. “I could meet international surfers and maybe find more competitive opportunities.”
Tebbai already represents Morocco in competitions, just like her older sister, Lilias, who is one of the three female Moroccan surfers competing internationally. “It's still a challenge to beat her,” she jokes. Despite her young age, Tebbai has already participated in the Moroccan, European, and African championships, following in the footsteps of Fatima Zahra Berrada, the first Moroccan woman to surf in international competitions back in 1996.At Tebbai’s level, the practice obviously requires significant personal and financial investments. Even at an amateur level, the sport is totally unaffordable for most Moroccans. Right now, the country is in the middle of an economic crisis that heavily affects regular people’s purchasing power amid increasing poverty and social inequality. A new surfboard costs around 5,000 dirhams (€450), and a used one 2,000 dirhams (€180). In Morocco, the minimum wage is only 2,769 dirhams, or €250. Some people manage to nab a board left behind by tourists, but those are occasional finds.
People who really want to try surfing but lack the means to do so can often rely on the community to help out. “Some of them are very good at it, but they usually have old and damaged boards,” El Amraoui sighs. In Oudayas, surfers often share wetsuits, or work out a plan to pay for equipment later. Still, El Amraoui thinks the system works out better for boys, since they are usually tapped into more of a network.Beyond the entry costs, the location of the best surf beaches in Morocco – Rabat, Casablanca, Mehdia, and Oualidia – is often prohibitive for anyone living in other parts of the country. Knowing how to swim is a privilege for many Moroccan women. “Everywhere in the world, including France, the social gap in swimming remains strongly tied to social factors,” explains Meriam Cheikh, an anthropologist studying dissent among young, lower-class people in Morocco. “Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to learn on their own because of gender constructs.”Although women in cities like Rabat are increasingly interested in surfing, the sport remains almost exclusively male. Cheikh says that those who do choose to participate are often motivated by the desire to hang out with male friends, brothers or cousins, as opposed to sticking the finger up to traditional gender norms. That being said, surfing is still a very niche subculture in Morocco, where sports like football, handball, athletics, and basketball are much more popular. In this aquatic microcosm, women aren’t seen as outliers for taking up the board. In fact, they enjoy a “positive valorisation”, explains Cheikh, “because it's a sport girls do for themselves”.
El Amraoui says she almost only surfs with men and has received a lot of encouragement from them. “There's a spot here where only the best surf,” she adds. “When I go there, the guys are very supportive – they are happy to see at least one girl. The girls here can be counted on one hand. The boys are really my friends.”
The Royal Moroccan Surfing Federation (FRMS) is also trying to encourage more women to take up the sport. In 2016, they organised the first international competition ever held in Morocco, which included a women's category. But, at the end of the day, “there are only three of us competing internationally to represent Morocco” Tebbai sighs. “And if any of us gets injured, there should be more girls to show that our presence was not just a matter of luck.”In March 2023, the first edition of the African Surfing Games was held in Taghazout, bringing together athletes exclusively from African countries for the first time, including Senegal, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mauritius, Burkina Faso, Republic of Congo, and Morocco. Tebbai came first in the under-18 category and placed second in the women's category, behind her sister Lilias.According to Cheikh, surfing is just one of the manifestations of the “increasing emphasis on individuality in Morocco”. It’s a trend you can spot among skateboarders, artists or other subcultures in the kingdom. “There’s often the impression that young people in the Arab world are a uniform group with common values and norms,” she says. “It's important to show there are multiple ways of being young in the Arab world, and belonging to a sports culture is one of them.”