In late 2012, Setareh Mazhari watched something that would change her life. The 26 year old was browsing Vimeo when she came across a four-minute video featuring a hijab-wearing woman surfing in the swelling blue waves off a beach in her home country, Iran.
"Right away I was just like, 'Wow, this is really inspiring,'" Tehran-based Mazhari says. "I'd surfed on holidays abroad as a child, and had always wanted to try it again. In fact, I was about to plan a trip to Bali to have lessons there. I just didn't realise I'd ever be able to surf in my own country."
The woman in the video was 29-year-old Irish adventurer and competitive surfer Dr Easkey Britton—believed to be the first woman ever to surf openly in Iran. "I had just come out of an intense period of competing and was seeking change," she tells Broadly. "What attracted me to Iran initially 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, influential and highly politicized part of the world."
Britton first headed there in 2010, with Marion Poizeau, a documentary maker. The region they travelled to, Baluchestan Province, is located on the coast of the Gulf of Oman and borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's a very traditional place, and a region with a checkered history of tribal infighting and drug smuggling. She admits her athletic sponsors weren't keen on the idea of her heading there, and refused to fund her trip. "I think they were fearful about what Iran represented, and had a lack of belief in what was possible," she says. They needn't have been. Dr Britton was met with overwhelming positivity by locals and an idea to encourage Iranians—especially young Persian women—to surf was born.
The pair travelled back a few times to surf in the area, and in August 2013 Poizeau contacted one of Setareh Mazhari's friends, 30-year-old Tehrani champion snowboarder Mona Seraji, to take part in a surfing documentary titled Into the Sea. "Some of my friends and family were a bit concerned when I said yes," Seraji says. "Baluchestan has the reputation of being a dangerous place. However, I wasn't worried, in fact I felt very lucky. It was amazing being able to surf in my own country."
The success of Into the Sea in Iran and countries such as the US and UK led Dr Britton and Poizeau to form Waves of Freedom, a non-profit organization that seeks to use surfing to break down gender boundaries, and to create strong female role models in the sport who are in charge of their communities.
After hearing about her friend's experiences filming Into the Sea, Mazhari got in touch with Dr Britton and began to regularly travel the 1,120 miles from Tehran to Chabahar, the coastal capital of Baluchestan, first to learn to surf with the group herself and then to teach others as part of Waves of Freedom. A surfing community was soon established on Ramin Beach in Chabahar, with workshops open to women and men of all ages.
The uptake of the sport in Baluchestan Province was rapid. The first surf workshop had just under 40 participants. A year on, this doubled to around 80. "A high proportion of beginner surfers at the workshops were female—60 percent," Dr Britton tells me. The women represented a diverse mix, with ages ranging from four to 40, though many are in their 20s, well-educated, and from the urban middle class.
"In this case, surfing is a sport that's been initiated and led by women—that is a bit unusual. Because it's not a traditional Iranian sport and hadn't been done before, there were no rules defining how it could and couldn't be done," Dr Britton says. It is accessible despite gender and other social boundaries. This all means the sport had a very unique meaning and identity attached to it.
"The use of social media platforms also allows young women to share their own story of what surfing means to them and lets them express their surfer identity, which is important," she adds. Mona Seraji's popular Instagram account @wesurfiniran, for example, is filled with striking images of female surfers riding the waves or running to the beach, boards under their arms.
The social media pictures of the surfers on their boards make it look so easy. I had my first ever surfing lesson in the UK last summer, and spent more time whacking myself in the face with my board than anything else. Didn't they find it hard to learn? "It can be real hard work—I wouldn't say it's an easy sport. We run some workshops which are three to four days long, practicing through the morning and afternoon." Seraji says.
"I mainly teach the basics," Mazhari admits. "However, I managed to stand up on the board on my very first time, despite finding it initially difficult. I do snowboarding as well, and I think they are all similar to each other."
Extreme sports are growing in popularity among young Iranians, especially millennial women. "This mainly started in Tehran, and it was mainly men competing," Mazhari tells me. "But now women are joining in—and realizing they are just as good as guys. It's really empowering for us."
"I've observed how active women and girls are in Iran," Dr Britton says. "Persian female athletes competed in the London 2012 Olympics and in the last Winter Olympics. Board sports and action sports seem to be really popular, especially among young urban females." This isn't unique to Iran and is an emerging story in other Middle-Eastern countries too, for example the Skateistan community in Afghanistan, where there are proportionally more females participating than males in skateboarding than anywhere else in the world.
In fact, at first the Chabahar locals assumed surfing was just a sport for women, because they'd only seen females taking part. "The moment that best captures this reaction for me was back in 2013, when a young boy watching Mona Seraji and Shahla Yasini [another Iranian sportswoman] surf for the first time at Ramin Beach stopped and asked us if this was something boys could do too," Dr Britton says.
However, in a country where the morality police will dish out harsh punishments to young women for doing things like wearing too much make up or fake tan, and where even ballet dancers are forced to take their lessons in secret, I wondered if the women had been met with any resistance for teaching, and participating in, surfing classes. "We had the police come down to the beach one time," Mazhari says. "But they saw that the girls were on the right hand side of the beach and the boys on the left, so the classes were being taught separately. Also the women were dressed modestly, in what we call our 'ninja hijabs,' so they didn't really have a problem."
Iranian women and tourists who travel to the country are expected to dress modestly, at the very least wearing a hijab and a long coat called a manteau when out in public. Being in the ocean is not an exception to this rule, so what to wear while surfing can present challenges for female participants, especially as traditionally tight surf-wear isn't what you'd describe as 'modest.'
"The clothing is the more challenging and also the most exciting and innovative part of it. Having functional, practical surfwear is critical to enable women's participation in the sport," Dr Britton says. Independent companies with items such as Salt Gypsy's surf leggings and Capsters surf hijabs have worked with Waves of Freedom to provide appropriate clothing. "We've also had expert design input from female Iranian athletes like triathlete Shirin Germai. The next step is developing the concept for a complete surf kit for women that we're collaborating on at Waves of Freedom," she adds.
With the recent lifting of the sanctions on Iran, the country's vice president Masoud Soltanifar said they was preparing for a "tsunami of foreign tourists" — something politicians believe will contribute positively to the economy. A hundred and twenty-five new luxury hotels are currently being built, with many near completion to encourage more visitors. Iran is a place rich in historical and cultural treasures, being home to 19 UNESCO world heritage sites. It's already a popular destination for skiing and snowboarding, so could the rise of surfing tie in with this?
"I would like people to know that Baluchestan is an amazing place, with fantastic beaches and kind, hospitable and polite people," Mazhari says. "Once people see how it really is, aside from the negative stereotypes about Iran you sometimes see in the media, I think more individuals will really want to come. I have friends from Germany, France and Australia who are planning to travel here to surf this year."
Dr Britton agrees: "The surf at Ramin Beach isn't world-class but it is an experience like no other, with consistent summer swells. If [making the area into a surfing tourist destination] done sustainably and with sensitivity and positive engagement with the local culture and community then I think it could be a very enriching, eye-opening experience and a wonderful way to experience the incredible hospitality, not to mention coastline of the region."
And what next for the surfers of Baluchestan themselves? There have been annual competitive events in Chabahar every summer since Into the Sea, but Mazhari's dream is for Iranian women to compete nationally. "I just want the whole world to see the amazing things that are happening here," she tells Broadly. Dr Britton is planning a trip back to the country in May this year, and Waves of Freedom remains engaged with the fledgling surf community at Ramin Beach. "There's a lot of energy to create a physical surf club and welcome more visitors who want to participate. It's still early days though," she says.
"Ultimately surfing will become different things for different people. Our role is very grassroots, to take small steps, keep building relationships, and hopefully act as a mentor in terms of guiding the process as best we can so that it remains accessible for women and girls, as well as those who are more marginalized."