Gender and the ocean
Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
This year, the theme for World Oceans Day is “Gender and the Ocean”, an opportunity to explore the gender dimension of humankind’s relationship with the ocean. A concerted action towards gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is still needed in all ocean-related sectors to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5. The UN defines gender equality as “the equal valuing by society of both the similarities and the differences between women and men and the different roles they play.”
The role of women in ocean related activities such as fisheries, marine tourism, migration by sea, marine science, and water-sports has been even more invisible than their roles on land. In my work as a woman in marine scientific research I seek to address the so-called ‘invisibility’ of women across these spheres from their active roles in fisheries and coastal livelihoods to the unequal burden of health impacts as a result of degrading marine ecosystems, and access and participation in water-sports, especially surfing. There is far too much to cover in a single column so perhaps this calls for a series on ‘women and the sea.’ I’ll begin with surfing, the activity that brought me into the sea, although it could be argued that there are similarities when it comes to any traditionally male-dominated sport or activity.
How we experience our sense of self in the water varies wildly. We don’t surf in a vacuum. Surfing is greatly influenced by historical, political, societal and cultural beliefs, rules, norms and social justice issues. Not all surfers are considered equal. Various aspects of identity such as gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and ability limit how we might experience surfing and our freedom to participate in surfing. Being a ‘woman who surfs’ is experienced very differently in different places, which is something I’ve written about with my surf-scholar colleagues Rebecca Olive and Belinda Wheaton in a book called ‘Living with the Sea’. In our chapter called ‘Freedom’ to Surf? Contested Spaces on the Coast, we share three different narratives of the gendered experience of surfing from different parts of the world. Olive discusses the experience of female recreational surfers in Australia, I write about experiences surfing with women in Iran as the sport begins to be established and Wheaton writes about the experience of women in African-American surfing sub-culture in California. Beach culture, including surfing, is dominated by white western privilege. Actually, that goes for most outdoor nature-spaces. In my research exploring the links between oceans and human health, we know how much benefit there is from accessing the coast, from being in the sea. And yet this benefit is not equally distributed. Minority ethnic groups, for example, have the least access to the coast for its recreational value, and for women from these communities it’s even lower.
We need stories to help us better understand the diversity of experiences of what it means to be a ‘woman who surfs’, and the complexities of accessing and experiencing the sea in order to be able to overcome the inequalities and injustices. It goes deeper than an issue of gender and sexuality alone and relates to the feminine. By that I mean our relationship with our environment, the sea, the waves, the world around us, how we relate. It’s about how we are able to express ourselves, to give expression to who we are – freely and truly without conforming to social norms and cultural expectations.
The world I want to live is a world where we are able to represent ourselves the way we wish to be – where we have the freedom and, crucially, the support to authentically express who we are. Women are more likely to be affected by rapid environmental and climate change, which can be particularly acute in coastal regions, so women are spearheading compassionate solutions around the world. It feels like there is a coming together that is leading to a collective movement. In surfing alone the tide is turning. Take for example the Institute for Women Surfers, which now has chapters around the world supporting women’s movements in and through surfing, and the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS). Just 5 years since Into the Sea, the award-winning film documenting Iran’s first female surfers was released, Farima, a 15 year old girl from Iran became the first female in her country to be awarded the international ISA surf scholarship. In Sri Lanka the first all-female surf club, Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club, was officially established last year. This was closely followed by the SeaSisters initiative, a swim and surf program, which seeks to empower Sri Lankan women and restore the ocean as a safe space. Surf Girls Jamaica is a powerful documentary released this year by two independent female film makers about Imani Wilmot who set-up the first female surf club of Jamaica to help women reconnect with their bodies and sense of self-worth, free from harm or violence. In Ireland, Welcome Wave, a social change initiative was set-up last year by a bereaved mother to connect children from refugee and asylum seeking families with the sea through surfing.
There are so many more stories, and what these spotlight is the diversity when it comes to our relationship with the sea. Women are surfing all around the world in different places, cultures, environments. Accessibility and entry into surfing is different for males and females and for women and girls from different backgrounds, with greater limitations for women persisting in terms of clothing, creating a ‘safe space’, and social acceptance. And yet, Wheaton points out in her work, for those who have overcome the barriers, the sense of freedom through surfing can be powerful and linked to important claims for recognition, equality and identity.
We all have our own way of moving. When it comes to the female body it’s something that I’ve realised from surfing with young women in Iran. There you have to cover your body and yet getting more in touch with how our bodies feel in the water was such a shared experience for all of us it didn’t really matter what we were wearing. That, for me, is what’s most important, making that experience as accessible as possible. When asked what the sea meant to her, Farima’s mother replied, ‘It’s purity. The sea is honest. It is truth, without discrimination. It may be vicious, it may be calm but it’s always honest about how it is. Let’s keep creating new narratives on, in, under the sea, in front and behind the lens.
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