When it comes to gender issues, Sri Lanka is a land of contradictions. In many areas there is a very high degree of equality. Women can be found in large numbers (sometimes the majority) in government, education, academia, business, and the professions, and it is common for them to occupy the highest positions in all those areas. So in that sense the country is quite advanced. But it is also the case that when it comes to social life, there is still quite a lot of gender disparity. Women are expected to be the main caregivers and homemakers in the family even when they are equal or the major breadwinners. This becomes more so when one leaves the more cosmopolitan metropolitan areas and move into the rural regions.
So I was interested in this article that spoke about how women living in a coastal area had to overcome objections in order to take up surfing. It began when a woman from California invited her neighbor to join her, offering to teach her.
Growing up in a small fishing village along the east coast of Sri Lanka, Shamali Sanjaya would often sit on the beach and look out at the boisterous waves. She would watch in envy as others, including her father and brother, grabbed surfboards, paddled out into the sea and then rode those waves smoothly back to shore. “I longed for it in my heart,” she said.
But as a local woman, surfing was strictly out of bounds for her. In Sri Lanka’s conservative society, the place for women was at the home and it was only the men, or female tourists, who were allowed to ride the hallowed waves in Arugam Bay, considered Sri Lanka’s best surf spot.
Yet now, as a 34-year-old mother of two and with another baby on the way, Sanjaya is at the forefront of a quiet female surfing revolution that has swept not just her village but the whole country. In 2018, she helped set up Sri Lanka’s first all-female surf club in Arugam Bay and in 2020 competed in Sri Lanka’s first women-only category in a national surfing competition. At four months pregnant, she’s still hitting the waves several times a week, and plans to compete again after her baby is born.
It began in 2011 with a knock from a neighbour. Tiffany Carothers, a surfing enthusiast and mother of two who had just moved in next door from her native California, asked Sanjaya if she wanted to come surfing. It didn’t matter that she’d only tried it once before, Carothers assured her, they’d lend her a board and give her some lessons.
Yet she faced fierce disapproval, particularly from her brother. Their parents had died when she was seven and he was protective of his sisters, believing that their place was inside the home.
“My brother told me that it is not our culture for women to be surfing, that I should stay inside and do the cooking and cleaning,” said Sanjaya. Known for being headstrong, she decided to ignore him and would instead co-ordinate secret surf rendezvous, rushing to the beach at lunchtimes when her brother was eating or going out at the crack of dawn.
The authorities tried to put a stop to this.
But as gossip and local disapproval began to swirl, Carothers was pulled in by the Sri Lanka tourist board. “They accused me of trying to change the culture, that girls in Sri Lanka don’t surf and if I wanted to help their families I should give them sewing machines,” she said. “They threatened to kick my family out of the country if they saw me teaching surf lessons to girls.”
The police also began questioning the members, asking whether Carothers was giving them alcohol and drugs, and over half the girls stopped attending. But rather than stopping altogether, the remaining women took their club underground and would meet secretly on the beach and go on clandestine surf trips to other parts of the island.
Finally in 2017, after the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka was set up, there was a pathway for their own official surf club and in August 2018 Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club was born.
The article goes on to describe the many harassments the women and girls in the surfing club faced from disapproving members of their family, school, and community that caused some of them to drop out. But the others were determined to keep going, and have often been able to win over those close to them.
Here is a video of the women surfers.