In Arugam Bay, strong-minded local women are creating a space for themselves in the lineup where they were previously unwelcome.
Shamali Sanjaya, a confident, 30-year-old mother and surfer from the small Sri Lankan town of Arugam Bay, serves as the president of the country's first all-female surf club. She leads group meetings, organizes beach cleanups and coordinates surf trips for the small-yet-growing group of 17 local women surfers. But just a few years ago, Shamali's experience as a surfer in Arugam Bay looked very different than it does today.
When Sanjaya learned how to surf about 8 years ago, she was the only woman in the lineup. "No girls were surfing in the village at that time," Sanjaya told me over the phone recently. "My brother is the number one surfer in Sri Lanka and my father is also a good surfer. When my cousin taught me how to surf he said, 'Shamali, I think you have surfing in your blood.' Here in Sri Lanka, women stay home or go to school. Married women look after their husband and kids. People think only women tourists surf."
Sanjaya didn't start surfing consistently until she met Tiffany Carothers, a California surfer who moved to Sri Lanka in 2011 as a volunteer with Surfing The Nations. Carothers would take Sanjaya and her sister out for a surf, but Sanjaya would get teased for being out in the lineup and even dealt with some family members who weren't pleased with her new hobby.
"Her brother was not keen on her surfing at all," recalls Carothers. "To be one of the only women out in the water, what that can do to a family and how that can make them look when you're being different from all the other women in the village…I know he just wanted to protect his family and not get a bad name."
To avoid her brother's overt disapproval, Sanjaya would sneak in surf sessions with Carothers when she knew her brother would be in another village. Sometimes, if he caught her out in the lineup grabbing a few waves, he would stand on the beach with a stick and hit the ground, signaling that he wanted her out of the water immediately.
In 2015, Carothers–along with visiting Australian surfers–organized an event to teach more women in the village how to surf. The event was successful, in Carothers' eyes, and got over 30 local women out in the water. But within two months, word had spread about Carothers' event and she was summoned by a town official, who told her that some men in the village were unhappy about their wives and daughters taking up surfing. It was insinuated that Carothers' family would be kicked out of Arugam Bay if the surf lessons continued, and that if she really wanted to help, she should buy the women sewing machines.
"I could tell the girls were so bummed because they loved being in the water," says Carothers. "So I started figuring out how can we do this [more discreetly]. We'd go to surf breaks that were far away. I'd put the girls in tuk-tuks and I'd get my own and they would go off separately so it didn't look like we were all together. We'd show up at the same surf break and walk out separately. When we did surf trips to the south, I'd get black vans with tinted-out windows and have the girls get in the van at 5 in the morning and make sure they didn't tell anyone where they were going. We had to be strategic for a couple of years because it was that bad. Some girls actually dropped out because they were scared of what would happen to my family."
Over the following few years, the village slowly started supporting the women, and according to both Sanjaya and Carothers, surfing began having an obvious positive effect on the women in the village. "A typical woman in Sri Lanka wakes up in the morning, cleans, makes breakfast and she's cooking and cleaning all day long," says Carothers. "The girls are breaking that mold of what a typical woman in Sri Lanka looks like–they're learning how to wake up early, do whatever they need to do for their households and still be respectful to their husbands, still take care of their children and their husbands are being supportive by watching the kids while they surf."
In late 2018, the Aragum Bay Surf Club became the first officially-registered female surf club through the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka, and there's a chance that, in the future, its members might actually be able to create job opportunities for themselves teaching tourists how to surf. "The guy who had basically told me to buy the girls sewing machines instead of teaching them how to surf has seen that this has been a beneficial thing teaching the girls to surf,” says Carothers. “If we can get these girls ISA certified as trainers to teach surfing, economically that would be a great thing because they can teach women tourists how to surf. He contacted Australian Aid and they just started a program to get the girls through surfing and swimming courses and get them ISA certified."
Although the women still get teased in the water from time to time, Sanjaya imagines a future where women will feel free to do what they want in Sri Lankan lineups without getting hassled. "Three years ago, people would always say to me, 'Why are you surfing? You should go home and cook for your husband,’" says Sanjaya. "And just last week someone was crying because people were making comments about her surfing and being a married woman. But I think in the future that will be done. We are showing all women and girls that we can do anything."
“I feel like the girls walk with their head high, knowing that people will still have their negative opinions, but being proud of what they've achieved,” says Carothers. “They’re an example to other women in the country, proving that the impossible is possible and no matter how many barriers come up, they can achieve their dreams and their goals for women's equality.”