The first person to surf in Iran was a woman: Easkey Britton, a former Billabong XXL Big Wave Award nominee, from Ireland.
Easkey may well be the most important female surfer in the world right now. That’s a big claim. Especially in a week when the legend that is Stephanie Gilmore took a leap closer to winning this year’s, and what would be her sixth World Title.
But Easkey is important because she’s a pioneer. Through her Waves of Freedom project she’s been teaching locals how to surf in one of the poorest parts of Iran, and then teaching them how to teach each other. Not to sell bikinis but to share a love of stoke. Ever respectful and dressed in a hijab, the fact she’s a woman in a country where women are often invisible outside of the home makes the whole story even more powerful.
With the filmmaker Marion Poizeau and help from the Iranian snowboarder Mona Seraji (whose own life story deserves a film) she’s made a movie about her experiences. It’s called Into the Sea and it blew us away. If you’re in London this week get yourself to the London Surf Film Festival to watch it on the big screen.
Good surf movies need action of course; the better ones even weave narrative into the mix. But the truly excellent films use surfing to open our eyes to a world we thought we knew but actually hadn’t the faintest idea about. Into the Sea does exactly that. We spoke to Easkey Britton about this awesome project
Hey Easkey, so why Iran?
Iran came up as an unexpected opportunity in the middle of my studies [Easkey has a PhD in Environmental Sciences, more specifically on human wellbeing and coastal resilience]. But I've always done that, tried to weave life around my number one passion for surfing.
It started as a wild idea passed along through friends of friends who also love to explore off-the-beaten-track places. 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. I didn't know what to expect and I couldn’t resist that sense of adventure - to go explore, and possibly find empty waves. It’s certainly not known for its surf but I thought it might be a really interesting way to get under the skin of a place I knew so little about.
Iran also has such a rich and intriguing culture as the former empire of Persia, the centre of civilisation in the ancient world. People thought I was mad of course. I admit I did take out the atlas to see if it actually had a wave-exposed coast. And was pretty ignorant about the region we were headed to for the surf. Sure, I did my homework tracking swell patterns and mapping the coast for potential spots, the water temperature (hot!) but knew little about the history, culture or politics. Which is probably just as well because some media publications claim it is the scariest little corner on earth. In a way, not knowing, meant I left a lot of preconceptions behind and was more open to the unexpected.
How did you know where the good waves were?
I didn't but the only stretch of coast exposed to the open ocean is the SE corner of Iran, the province of Baluchistan next to the border of Pakistan and it’s only a 60 mile stretch. It's also the remotest and poorest region of Iran, more known for tribal conflict and smuggling than surfing, until now!
The monsoon season generates consistent swell out of the Indian Ocean during our summer months in the Northern Hemisphere. We were there at the end of the swell season but every day there was surf, shoulder to head high and huge stretches of empty beach with some good sandbanks. The wind comes up late morning/early afternoon but the early mornings were always glassy. It’s no Indo but that’s not the point is it? And it’s one of the craziest landscapes I’ve ever surfed in, a lot like Mars.
How did you meet Marion Poizeau the filmmaker?
The first time I met Marion was in Tehran when I arrived on that first exploration trip. She had this small HD camera and great enthusiasm for the unknown and storytelling, like me. So we were just fuelled by our passion and curiosity and a non-existent budget!
With surfing you never really know what you are going to get, it's so unpredictable. Of course, with a place like Iran where so little is known about the surfing potential this was really heightened - I didn't even know if we would find waves. Nothing was guaranteed. This also meant nothing was taken for granted and that finding surf was the icing on the cake - but not the whole story.
The Iranian snowboarder Mona Seraji (pictured below in the white sunnies) seemed super cool, how did you meet her?
She's the reason we went back last year. Mona and her friends in the snowboard community in Tehran saw the short film Marion made about the first trip online and she reached out to us, wanting to know how she could try surfing in her country.
How Iranian people actually live is shrouded in a lot of myth; it's often presented as a joyless place but your film was great at dispelling that. What else surprised you about the actual culture there?
The people. Their amazing generosity of spirit and sense of humour despite the crazy challenges they live with. In fact, because of that it creates a determination and drive to find a way around the blocks, which can lead to surprising creativity and innovation, especially among the younger generation in the cities...if only it were allowed to flourish.
What did you not like?
I wish I could speak Farsi, it’s such a rich, beautiful language. Surfing is a language in its own way, but to be able to have much deeper conversations and to understand all the subtleties of what's happening would really help deepen connections and my understanding.
I like to try and be open minded about all faiths but I found that invisibility of women hard to take…And the fact they have all these (metaphorical) hoops to jump through to do sport, when sport is so essential to health and sanity. Do you think women's only beaches would be helpful for Iranian women's surfing?
It would be great if both men and women could freely practice surfing together in the sea. And so far they can. The only challenge is the hijab. Women have to keep completely covered. A women-only beach might allow women the freedom to wear what they want in the surf, or at least to have their heads uncovered. It's not about trying to change the rules but about being able to create better opportunities and shared experiences that help us realise how much we actually have in common, what makes you feel good and to have the freedom to do that.
Actually, a big reason surfing has been so accepted over there, especially by the-powers-that-be, was that I respected the hijab when I surfed that first time. It was about challenging assumptions and recognising the need to respect another culture, even if it seems so far removed from my own. There is something about being 'open-minded' which means accepting what appears as conservative views even if we consider ourselves more liberal. And I also wanted to make sure there would be no reason for women to be prevented from surfing, to show that women can surf and respect the hijab, if they have to.
What's happened, because some of the best surfers are female, is that it’s often women teaching men! I do think, from an official standpoint and for the development of surfing, it’s crucial there are now local female leaders in the sport, Mona and her friends, Parvaneh from the local village and women from Chabahar. But there’s no stopping women. 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 and were asked by the village leaders and Dads if we could send more so more women and girls could go surfing.
On camera there seemed to be no hostility, did you encounter anything off camera?
I can't say I ever have personally. A part from the minor freak-out at the local airline when they say the size of the board-bag I was carrying jam-packed with half-dozen boards. They thought it was a boat! But it can feel tense, you can never fully relax because things we take for granted here can take on whole other meanings over there. It's so complex because there's a lot happening below the surface we're not even aware of...
In a practical sense, how did you get such effective hijabs that never seemed to fall in your face and suffocate you!?
We're sponsored by an amazing company called Capsters who specialise in making sports hijabs for Muslim women in all kinds of sports including watersports. And Salt Gypsy sponsored the beautifully designed surf leggings that were a huge hit! When you can't show off your body, a sense of fashion and style becomes hugely important, as well as sourcing surfwear that's practical in an environment like that.
I loved how happy surfing made everyone there, did that surprise you?
It surprised me how rapidly it spread. After our follow-up trip there this year with Waves of Freedom's 'Surf Seeds' initiative, it's growing into a nationwide/International movement and community with their own instagram page @wesurfiniran. It’s impossible for me to capture the enormity of this on an emotional and personal level. I had the feeling like my heart and soul had been swept away...just when I think I can’t be surprised, I can’t open my mind anymore, that my heart can’t be touched anymore deeply, something happens that opens my world up even more.
A real high point was seeing young women overcome fear of the unknown, to take that step no one else had, and to go surfing with me...and then to look back and see a group of young kids gathered on the beach copying us, practicing their pop-ups, ready to surf, inspired...and eventually it became a shared experience with these young women from the city and local people from a part of their country that remains largely forgotten.
Was it important to go with an all girl crew?
Yes, that had a big impact in terms of accepting that it’s something that girls can do and helped break some stereotypes from the beginning. I'll never forget a young boy watching us surfing for the first time, Mona, Shahla, Marion and I, and asking if it was something boys could do too!
I’ve seen so many women of all ages, from tiny girls of 4 years old to Mums in their late 40s embracing the surfing lifestyle and it impacting them personally in terms of a sense of achievement, overcoming fear, feeling energised, alive and yes, that sense of joy and freedom when it all comes together and you stand up on your first wave. The opportunity to explore and push your limits, test your comfort zone in a totally new environment but one where there is support from other like-minded women and encouragement from both genders, learning from each other. I never could have imagined it.
On a broader career point, why did you choose this route rather than moving to Hawaii to charge big waves or get on the ASP Tour?
This wasn't a planned career choice...I'm blessed to have some of the best waves to come home to in Ireland, but I've always been a seeker...this all grew from continuously stepping beyond what I know, or think I know and putting myself in situations that challenge that. There's been a lot of synchronicity, rather than planning some kind of mission. That said it has grown into a bigger vision for me - one of surfing + social good. Surfing is used to sell all kinds of crap, why not use it to promote the good stuff too?
What's next for you Easkey?
Building Waves of Freedom into a strong, successful and impactful organisation, supporting a global community of wave-makers! I get a lot of emails from Iranian women, as well as from the local community, asking: “Are you coming back?" I want to follow this through - we introduced surfing as a sport, it’s been accepted, now it can grow, but what could that look like, how to help it develop sustainably?
Within Waves of Freedom we are developing a community-based, participative surf and development program called ‘Surf Seeds’, which is a collaborative, co-creation model for the sustainable development of surfing as a resource for positive impact. This is something that could be applied in different contexts across the world. An essential part of that is skills development as well as the need for surf equipment. Another core part of Waves of Freedom is supporting and promoting strong female role models and leaders in surfing through our mentorship and ambassador programme.
I vision big but I have to remember to start small, while holding that bigger vision. Every little bit of support really matters at this stage. We are seeking support for this follow-up project through donations of money and/or equipment. We’re also working in partnership with Beyond the Surface International, a 501(c)(3) charity platform for surf and development NGOs across the world, to build surfing as a tool for positive change. So there are lots of opportunities for individuals, businesses or organisations to get involved and support us.
What are you up to now in Canada?
Getting lost in the wilderness...it's been an insane year and every now and again it's good to take some time to 'decelerate', as a friend of mine calls it! Space to unplug and tune-in to what really matters to you. Or to think about nothing much at all for a while. Let the mind grow still. Nature is best for that.
Are you still producing art?
Yes...I love it, I get inspired by the trips I do and come back bursting with ideas but it can be hard to find the time and space to get stuck in. It's like therapy for me, but need to find a way to share it more.
Would you like to thank anyone?
Thank you to all the people who've supported the Waves of Freedom project so far. Special thanks to Capsters for the surf hijabs, Salt Gypsy for the sea leggings, local surf schools for donating surf equipment - Fin McCools and Bundoran Surf Co., Finisterre for the awesome hand planes, Jaws in France, the local community.
And here's a reminder of the kind of monster waves Easkey can surf. This was off Mullaghmore last December: