gender justice

a surfeminist story: part II

photo by Lila Koan

photo by Lila Koan

So like I said, this is a story about freedom.

I remember telling a friend a few years ago that I feel most free when I'm in my bikini. I remember that moment when we were walking down the street in Playa Hermosa, headed to the beach for sunset, and we were all smiles and sunshine and he just sort of looked at me when I said it, seeming surprised that it could be true. In that moment, it actually was. The ability to live nearly naked, skin touching air and sand and sea, that was what freedom felt like to me.

In subtle ways, that freedom has been stripped, little by little, in unwanted glances and uninvited comments made by men and some women. And I fight to hold on to any semblance of that feeling, which may have been lost now entirely on that trip to El Salvador, where the freedom I once felt in my bikini was grounds for reminding me just how vulnerable my body actually is. Not because of what I wear, but because I am a woman. And that makes my body feel like my own little prison of skin I should hide, when it once felt absolutely free to kiss the air and swim wildly in the sea, wearing as little fabric as socially possible. At best, being in my bikini now often feels like both freedom and prison, simultaneously, however impossibly contradictory that might be.

Virginia Woolf wrote brilliantly of this essential paradox: "...telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful - and yet they are very difficult to define."

This surfeminist story isn't meant to discredit the many men out there who love and support women's surfing, and who genuinely seek gender equality in and out of the water. In fact, these men are our surfeminist allies (understanding feminism, rudimentarily of course, as the belief in gender equity, justice, equality and freedom), and they are the friends and surf family whose respect for our unique style and approach to surfing pays homage to its Hawaiian origins, where men and women shared waves in both ceremony and celebration, often in ways today's 'rules' of surfing would absolutely abhor. 

Unfortunately, these men allies are often the exception, and in the decade or so that I've been surfing, I've borne witness to and directly experienced a range of scenarios across the spectrum of sexism, sexual harrassment, misogyny, gender injustice and gendered violence - in the lineup, on the beach and in casual conversations over breakfast. These incidents range from back-paddling and snaking to lewd, sexist and patronizing comments, as well as verbal and physical aggression including obscene name-calling, splashing, hair-pulling and attacks on women's surfboards and bodies. In both intent and consequence, these actions uphold male privilege and subordinate women (in and out of the water) in physical, sexual, and psycho-emotional ways, serving as barriers to access and entry into surfing for women who do not wish to subject themselves to the aggressions and harrassment of men, which they are forced to endure for the simple fact that they are women in the water.

For those of us who won't be deterred, we are frequently subjected to these and other sorts of dominant male behaviors, which either stem from ignorance of women's experience in surfing, or more often than not, men's (unspoken) desire to either exert their dominance in displays of toxic masculinity, or keep women out of the lineup altogether in order to maintain the sport as a sort of gentlemen's club, no women allowed. Many men often justify their aggression toward women by invoking 'the rules' of surfing, which are more like commonly adopted ideas neither written in stone nor created with the input of women. Instead, today's surfing 'rules' as decided by men and adopted by most in surfing culture, are a reflection of the male-dominated and Puritan white history of Western surfing culture in which they emerged, much different from the historical roots of native surfing peoples across Polynesia and in some places in the Americas, where surfing ‘rules’ were much different and often favored women among the waves. In those conversations, 'whose rules?' is an important question, and without representation in their slow but certain adoption over time, perhaps women surfers are now in a position to create new rules in surfing (perhaps based on support, solidarity, shared love of the sea and respect for one another, rather than brute strength and displays of aggression assuring entitlement to waves). And by disobeying 'the rules' as the male-dominated surfing world would have them, maybe we're already doing just that.

Yesterday, as synchronicity would have it, I overheard a father complaining to his thirteen year-old son about my friend, a 40-year old single mother of two toddler boys, dropping in on 'his' wave, asserting his rightful ownership based on 'the rules' of surfing, of course, that he was closest to the peak and therefore had the right-of-way.

"She probably doesn't even know she did it - not like she'd care anyway," the man said to his son.

"As usual," the son grunted back, justifying his father's angst and claim to what they both believed was rightfully his according to the 'rules'. What doesn't factor-in in those 'play by the rules' scenarios is any recognition of the world of challenges to a woman's access to the waves, which they, being men, would never even need to consider for themselves, including the fact that she has two little boys waiting for her on the beach, one of whom is still breastfeeding, and both of whom are under the care of a paid babysitter, and the clock is ticking.

Similarly, these men chose not to understand - or ask to find out - that she was one of the first humans to ever surf that wave, some fifteen years or so ago when she moved there, and if anyone has 'rights' to a wave - where commonly accepted standards of localism are concerned - it's her and definitely not them. Still, lacking vital information to judge their situation, I imagine their self-righteousness lives on in their own minds, with the 'rules' to back them up. And I also imagine that if women were involved in writing the supposed rulebook of surfing, perhaps people like breastfeeding mothers who have lived and surfed that spot for fifteen years, may have higher priority on a wave than two upwardly mobile white dudes from California who just hopped off the plane, deciding they own shit because they play by 'the rules'.

Whose rules?

And I digress.

In the end, as in the beginning, this is a story about freedom. Particularly about a woman's right to feel free in her body as she walks and wanders the world in whatever she chooses to wear, and as she surfs herself silly across the boundless majesty of the Earth's sacred salty seas. This is a story about a woman's right to determine where she goes, who she speaks with, which waves she surfs and when, without having to consider the potential and actual aggressions of men. In the words of Rebecca Solnit, the wishes of Woolf for women everywhere, "the full freedom to roam, geographically and imaginatively....the freedom to continue becoming, exploring, wandering, going beyond."

And in this story of freedom, men and women can support women by listening to our stories, and defending us to other men (and some women) nonviolently, both in our presence and alone, in simple comments that help shift our collective sociocultural story toward gender equality, justice and respect. In the water, men can acknowledge women in ways that are respectful of our humanity, considering our particular experiences as unique and different, creating space for considering new 'rules' in surfing that simultaneously honor women as well as surfing's non-Western origins, and the sanctity of the sea. And when a woman's physical integrity has been violated by a man, other men and women can look for ways to heal gender injustice by teaching men how to stop violating women, not suggesting to a woman victim that her behavior is the reason she was violated.

I don't suffer the conceit of believing my story is any greater than any other woman's story. In fact, far from it. But I do believe that, as women, sharing our stories in a world that seeks to silence them, is power in itself. And as women surfers, sharing these stories within the still very male-dominated world of surfing is our greatest hope for change, both in and out of the water.

Solnit writes: "Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt."

My story is but one tiny drop in a wild and infinite ocean. Here's to hoping it ripples, even if ever so slightly.