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Surfer girls make waves and defy expectations in Bangladesh

July 31, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
In Bangladesh's only beach town, there are just a handful of girls who ride the waves. In fact, most people there frown upon seeing girl surfers, who have faced threats from conservative Muslims in the neighborhood. But surfing makes them feel empowered when they might otherwise be expected to assume traditional roles and marry before they become adults. Special correspondent Tania Rashid reports.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Now we turn to Bangladesh, where some children walk the beaches selling trinkets and food to help their families deal with grinding poverty. Many of the girls will be married before they become adults, and will often be expected to assume traditional roles in the house.

But one ambitious group of young girls is pushing back against that tide, and heading into the surf.

Special correspondent Tania Rashid takes us wave-riding.

TANIA RASHID: The world’s longest beach is in Bangladesh, and it is in Cox’s Bazar, the only beach town in the country. And these are the only girls that ride the waves.

Watching girls surf is a rare sight in this predominantly Muslim country of 160 million. The surfers are mainly men, and most of the people here say it bothers them to see girls in the water.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SURF CLUB HERE

But that’s no matter to Sobe Meheraz. She is one of the 12 surfer girls in the entire region. At the surf club, she tells me about her passion for surfing.

SOBE MEHERAZ, Surfer (through interpreter): My friends surf. Once we surf, and I can ride a big wave, then I feel really good. That’s why I love surfing. When people see me, they say, wow, you rode such a big wave. Everyone watches me at the beach. Everyone says, good job, good job.

But there are some boys around the neighborhood that say bad things. They don’t know me.

People don’t understand. They frown upon it. It’s most Bengali people that don’t like it.

TANIA RASHID: With the rising scale of Islamist extremism and attacks in the area, these girls have already faced threats from conservative Muslims in the neighborhood.

At a nearby madrassa, an Islamic religious school, funded by non-government sources, including help from individuals abroad and within their community, a local imam is training young boys to recite the Koran and practice Islam.

What do you think about young girls and women surfing?

MAN (through interpreter): The issue of girls surfing, to me, isn’t a good thing. Girls are meant to be covered, so that boys can’t see them. Girls have been told to stay out of boys’ sight. Girls are respectful beings, and they have been asked to stay hidden. So, if girls are surfing and go into the ocean, then a lot of people can see then. And that’s a sin. It’s not good.

TANIA RASHID: What is a woman’s role in Islam, then?

MAN (through interpreter): God has created women to be respected and to be at the disposal of men. This is the main theory of Islam.

TANIA RASHID: But this perception of the men doesn’t stop Sobe Meheraz from surfing.

SOBE MEHERAZ (through interpreter): No, no, I’m not scared. I used to be scared at first, but not anymore.

TANIA RASHID: In just a few days, there will be a competition sponsored by an American missionary called Surfing the Nations. Hundreds of people will be watching, including the judges.

Sobe Meheraz and Shoma are the best surfers among the girls. The top winner will receive $248.00 and a used surfboard. The girls could use the cash. They all live in the slums. They are determined to win.

Rashed Alam, a longtime surfer himself, found the girls selling eggs and jewelry on the beach five years ago, and decided to train the girls to surf. He now looks after them as his own and runs a local surfer boys and girls club.

RASHED ALAM, Founder, Surf Boys and Girls Club: They have freedom. They like have lots of things to do. They have life. What do women do in Bangladesh? They go get married and stay in home, like whole life as housewife.

Here, there are lots of things to do outside of home. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. What you are doing is an amazing job. You are promoting our country. I just want to see a smile on their face.

TANIA RASHID: Shoma’s mother believes in empowering her daughter.

WOMAN (through interpreter): My daughter surfs, and I am so happy. Our lives are functioning. If Allah blesses us, then my daughter will be very big surfer. She can surf for 40 or 50 years, surf well, and go to a foreign land.

TANIA RASHID: But this town has some of the highest rates of poverty in Bangladesh, and child marriage is rampant. One in three girls is being married under the age of 15.

Baby Aktar, Sobe Meheraz’s mother, a victim of child marriage herself, married off all her daughters at 13, except for Sobe Meheraz. Since her husband, a drug addict, left, she’s had to support her family alone. She is not so fond of her daughter’s surfing.

BABY AKTAR, Surfer Mom (through interpreter): If she had a job, it would be good for us. I have so many illnesses. I have no one to help me to get me medicine. I just stay in the house all by myself. A woman should understand another woman’s hardship, yes. She is also a woman. She is causing me a lot of pain, this daughter of mine.

TANIA RASHID: Sobe Meheraz remains to be the only unmarried daughter in the family. When she’s not surfing, she does her best to support her mother. Despite her mother’s discouragement, Sobe Meheraz is determined to win the girls division at the annual competition.

And today is the big day. She and the rest of the girls come one by one at 5:00 a.m. to begin prepping for the competition.

Now that I’m looking at the waves, it seems like that it might be difficult for you to surf. Do you think you are going to be able to manage?

WOMAN: Yes.

TANIA RASHID: Though crowds cheer on the girls, the stares linger. Local Muslim onlookers are not very pleased watching the girls surf, including the religious men surrounding the area. Crowds gather to watch both the girls and boys prep to ride the waves.

Local media is present.

SOBE MEHERAZ (through interpreter): My name is Sobe Meheraz. I give my salaam to everyone. I’m happy I’m in the final. If I am first place, I will be happy. And if my team members win, I will be really happy.

TANIA RASHID: Sobe Meheraz and the girls wait nervously before they hit their last wave. The stakes are high. Sobe Meheraz’s friend, Shoma, also feels the pressure.

SHOMA, Surfer (through interpreter): I’m really scared. I’m very scared about my performance. Will I do well? The waves are bad. I will be really happy if I win. It is my life’s dream.

TANIA RASHID: But the whistle blows, and they have to face the ocean. One by one, they each go as Rashed looks on.

RASHED ALAM: I’m feeling like really happy now. I’m really happy. What I’m always looking for, always my dream, there, like, it’s happening.

TANIA RASHID: At a final ceremony, the winners are about to be awarded. The girls dance to pass time as all the mothers wait anxiously. And after surfing into being in second place two years in a row, this year, Sobe Meheraz wins first prize.

SOBE MEHERAZ (through interpreter): I didn’t win twice, but I won this time. My name is Sobe Meheraz, 2017 champion. Champion!

I kept telling myself I’m not going to give up. When I went surfing, I said I can do this. At first, I did feel then I went for it and dived and became a champion.

TANIA RASHID: And she finally feels like she has won her mother’s approval.

SOBE MEHERAZ (through interpreter): My mom is so happy. She can tell everyone in our neighborhood: My daughter is the champion of 2017.

TANIA RASHID: Sobe Meheraz plans on giving the money she won to help her family and donating her board to the surf club, so young girls can continue to learn to surf, just like her.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Tania Rashid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

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