EB: I think it comes from the fact that my family is quite pioneering, and my dad was one of the first surfers in Ireland. Hearing his stories of adventure has always instilled in me the desire to travel and explore unknown places. My dad is not a fan of crowds so we tend to go off the beaten track.
The initial impulse to go to Iran in 2010 was just about trying to find waves that had never been surfed before. The initial intention wasn’t to start a surfing revolution. At the time, I didn’t think about what it might mean to be a woman surfing in Iran. Surfing was a cool way to experience a totally different place.
TS: Do you feel like bringing surfing to Iran was met with any kind of hostility or resistance because it was a Western influence?
EB: It was important for us to respect Iranian culture. The most important code of conduct for women there who want to play sports is that they have to wear a hijab. I stayed covered up and wore a hijab too. That made a difference in terms of how we were accepted.
TS: You handled that well,in the sense that you talked to the community and the leaders of the villages to make them feel comfortable with the whole situation.
EB: There are a lot of different power dynamics to consider. I have my own vision and ideals that I’m bringing with me. I have my own background and beliefs. I don’t speak the language so I learned to communicate in other ways.
TS: I find that the media makes traveling around the world seem so much scarier than it actually is. When you get there, on a basic level, everybody just wants their friends and families to be safe. In some ways, cultures can be quite similar. Then, of course, there are differences, like religion.
EB: Right. That reminds me of the Baluchestan province in Iran, where there’s amazing music but the women aren’t allowed to sing. They are only allowed to sing in private, where a man could never hear them. So, to surf, to be able to dance on waves, seemed significant. What we are doing in Iran is trying to create a dialogue about surfing as a force for social impact.
TS: Do you have any plans to go back to Iran?
EB: I always find myself being pulled back to Iran. The documentary was filmed in 2013. I went back again last sum- mer to follow up. It was important for me to see what had happened in that year, and how the experience had been for people. Had they made surfing their own thing, had it really caught on? I’m pleased to say that it had.
We ran a workshop there with surf lessons and training. We challenged some local guys to teach other people how to surf. After a week they were really enthusiastic and eager to have a competition. More than forty people participated. People got prizes for a particular talent, like the longest wave or best wipeout. Everyone teamed up and shared surfboards. It ended up being a really incredible day. It was important to have events that allowed people to come together and celebrate, while maintaining a sense of achievement. Whenever I go to Iran, I’m always blown away.
TS: Do you plan on doing something similar in other countries?
EB: There are other people developing great surf programs in places like India and Morocco and Liberia. It’s about trying to connect people in a powerful way, yet it’s very niche and separate from the rest of the surf industry.
TS: What are you doing next? What are you working on?
EB: Waves of Freedom, our all-volunteer initiative, is only a year old. We believe that the power of surfing can be a medium for social change. I guess that’s our tagline, but what that really means is supporting, in particular, women and girls being able to access and also participate in surfing. In the process, we hope they will explore their own sense of self-expression and freedom, and what that means across different cultures.
Really, it’s a tool to connect across cultures, to create greater understanding through surfing, and to promote female role models and leadership. It’s about creating more opportunities.