NBC — An intrepid group of women is riding the waves of change in deeply conservative Iran.
by ALI AROUZI
A woman’s testimony is considered half of a man’s in the country’s court. Buses are segregated by gender and it is illegal for women to attend men’s volleyball games for fear they will be corrupted by the sight of the athletes’ bare legs. In public, women have to cover most of their bodies in accordance with Islamic law.
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But this hasn’t stopped Mona Seraji. She helped set up the country’s first surf club three years ago — which was made up entirely of women.
Now men have also joined her in taking to the waves off an isolated beach some 1,100 miles south of Tehran in lawless Sistan and Baluchestan.
“We said, ‘Let’s make a surf culture here and we can make it grow into a surf school and it can grow bigger and bigger and bigger,'” the 32-year-old events manager told NBC News. “I was really into surfing my entire life. What could be better than that?”
Image: Mona Seraji, left, stands alongside other surfers
Mona Seraji, left, with other surfers and locals on the southern coast of Iran near the village of Ramin. Ali Arouzi / NBC News
The nameless club is in Ramin, a fishing village caught between the desert and the sea that is fortunate enough have a beach with a good swell. It runs workshops and now counts with around 50 members.
Surfing in Iran got a start in 2010 when French filmmaker Marion Poizeau recorded a short clip of Irish champion Easkey Britton riding the waves off Ramin.
Three years later, the pair returned to Iran to make documentary about surfing in the Islamic republic. In the course of filming the award-winning piece, they worked with Seraji, a snowboarder, and Shahla Yasini, a local diver.
The sport quickly became popular among some of the local men after a boy from nearby Ramin approached Seraji.
“Is this something only women can do, or can guys surf too?” she remembers him asking.
Image: Catching a wave
Catching a wave near Ramin, Iran. Ali Arouzi / NBC News
“We encouraged him to give it a go with us and by the end of the week there was small group of locals,” Seraji recalled.
The sport not only takes dedication, it requires bravery. Smuggling is rife in the isolated area, with local gangs moving gasoline, drugs, people and even white goods like refrigerators and washing machines across the desolate landscape.
The club would not be possible without the help of Abed Fuladi, the head of the region’s Basij, Iran’s voluntary paramilitary force. The 32-year-old looks after all the equipment, stores it in his home and has even learned to repair surfboards. Fuladi’s brother has become an instructor.
“I FEEL LIKE I AM FLYING — OUT THERE ON THE WATER YOU DON’T THINK ABOUT ANY OF YOUR PROBLEMS”
A small crowd of locals gathered on the beach to watch the surfers on a recent morning. The women wore loose T-shirts and shorts over their wet suits and covered their hair in accordance with Islamic laws.
Kimia Maleki, a local member of the club, did pre-surfing stretches.
“I was terrified of the sea and hated this area but when I saw the clip of these girls surfing I became very interested and joined their workshop,” the 24-year-old said. “Now because of surfing I love the sea and have decided to stay in this area and I think surfing is the best sport in the world.”
Maleki described what it’s like to be on the water: “I feel like I am flying — out there on the water you don’t think about any of your problems”
Farboud Motlaghi, a local shrimp wholesaler, now takes time out of running his business to surf after joining one of the workshops Seraji set up.
“I’m not the best surfer but I can stand up on the board,” the 26-year-old said.
How does it feel be the woman behind a surfing revolution?
“Beyond stoked,” Seraji said.
Image: Members of Iran’s unnamed surfing club sit around a fire
Surfers and locals sit around a fire near the village Ramin after a day on the water, barbecuing fish and talking about the next day’s activities. Ali Arouzi / NBC News.