Where it all began...
In 2015, Tiffany Carothers from Surfing the Nations started weekly Girls Make Waves surf lessons for local women and girls in Arugam Bay. For the first time, women had the chance to learn how to surf in a safe space, supervised by female surf instructors.
The stoke spread...
The stoke spread and over the next few years, the girls continued to surf, bringing a new source of happiness. However, they could still not go surfing on a regular basis, as back on land, they had to fight against expectations from society, their community and families. Some girls had to stop surfing, but others kept going, aiming to get into the waves more often.
In January of 2011, I moved to Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka with my husband Cody and two children. Volunteering with Surfing The Nations, a non profit, humanitarian group, we wanted to be as involved with the local surf clubs and community as much as possible. Upon our arrival, it wasn’t too long before I realized that the surfing community was made up of only guys. As time went on, I missed the feeling of having friends (girls) enjoying my same hobbies with me. I began making deep friendships with some of the ladies in the village. Two of my closest friends, Shamali and Inoka, Asanka’s sisters (Arugam Bay’s top surfer), were keen to get in the water on a surfboard. They had told me that they had tried surfing before with Katie, a woman from England that had married their cousin. So for me, initially surfing with the local girls began back then in 2011.
Over the next four years, we would surf together on and off. It was apparent to me that Shamali had the stoke for surfing. In a village of people that stick heavily to customs and culture, it was hard for Shamali to push past the boundaries and barriers of what women should and shouldn’t do. She loved surfing and felt the drive to do it, but she also wanted to protect her family's name. There were times that she was threatened and felt scared because of family members and other people in the village making issues over her surfing. I remember feeling like we had to sneak out to surf and watching her always looking to the shore to make sure of who was watching. For a long time, it was never your typical “fun surf sesh” when factoring in all of those emotions.
During those years living in the village, I built great relationships with not only the women, but with all the families. Every Wednesday night was Family Night, where the ladies would all come over and we’d cook together and feed 40-100 people in the village. I truly believe that those years of building relationships and allowing the people to see my character would contribute to what would happen next.
In May 2015, my family, a friend named Debbie and two of our local surfers Siril Praneeth and Anusanth Babu flew over to Bali, Indonesia to attend the first Surf and Social Good Summit put on by Irish big wave surfer Easkey Britton. Some amazing people and organizations were represented there and so many great things came out of that conference. Easkey, Cori Schumacher (3x World Longboard Champion), Andy Abel (founder and president of Papua New Guinea Surf Association), my husband Cody and myself, had a special time collaborating on what it looks like to push past cultural and gender boundaries in order to allow women the joy of surfing. Through talks, tears, and a lot of brainstorming, I walked away from that conference with a new boost of energy, perseverance, and hope.
Amongst many of the wonderful people I met at the summit, were two Aussie girls Sara Yani Sands and Janiece Walker. We had so many of the same passions and determinations to see women of other cultures be empowered through the beautiful sport of surfing. We also were like-minded in that empowering these women would not mean the stereotypical western women's empowerment. It would be so much more. As we continued talking during the week, I found out that they were planning a trip to Sri Lanka with their non profit group The Fresh Air Project in just
over a month.
I went back home to A-Bay in hopes of preparing to hold a surfing event for our local girls. Sara and Janiece prepared their team from Australia to come over and help teach surfing to the local ladies. I worked to get sponsors for gift bags with sunblock, towels, and water bottles for each girl. I found different surf schools, donating boards and rash guards for the girls to use the day of the event. And then I made my way through the village to talk with each family about what we were planning. A few girls including Shamali were 100% on board with the idea of this event. As we approached each family, and made known to them the girls who were already becoming involved, they were more open to join.
On July 7th, 2015, history was made, when our very first Girls Make Waves event was kicked off with nearly 30 girls, ages 15-40. We started off at my house, in our community center downstairs, with an exciting welcome, handing out the gift bags and on to a formal surf instruction by surf coach Janiece. An hour later, jeeps full of ladies headed to the surf spot at Elephant Rock. For the first time ever, some girls stepped into the water. For others, it was their first time to fully immerse themselves in the ocean. With the fear of water and heartbreak that the tsunami left behind, these girls pushed past immense barriers.
With the help of the Fresh Air Project team and Monica, yoga instructor, we had three different stations for the girls; rotating stretching and yoga with Monica, learning and practicing swimming techniques, and finally surfing. Most girls stood on a surfboard for their very first time that day. Many of them caught long, fun rides. But the smiles on their faces and laughter and joy that day were irreplaceable. That day would not be the last day that those girls hit the waters. They were determined to keep going. We continued running Girls Make Waves (GMW) weekly. Monica volunteered her time and energy to teach yoga to the girls bi-weekly. The other weeks we went surfing.
When all seemed to be running smoothly and the hype continued with the girls surfing, we were slammed with some harsh adversity. I got a call to meet with some “town officials” (we'll just call them). We heard that they were not happy about the girls surfing and wanted to meet with us, as it was our initiative. My husband and I decided to bring three of the ladies that were participating weekly to also have a voice at the meeting. During that meeting, we were told that the village had been complaining that we were trying to change their culture by encouraging women to surf. One of the girls, Nadeeka, was bold and stood strong and tried convincing this man that the girls were all happy, wanted to surf, and were not being forced into anything. But still, "keep the women inside" was their answer. It was insinuated that my family would be forced to leave Sri Lanka if we were seen pushing the girls into waves. Within the next few days, police showed up to my house questioning me and continued to each of the girls houses. The girls were asked if I was giving them drugs and alcohol. The girls all told the police that I was not giving them drugs and alcohol, but that it was only about surfing.
Sadly, because of that day, we lost many of our surfer girls, due to that police visit and the negative talk that began to spread around the village. Many fathers and brothers no longer wanted their daughters and sisters associated with something that was culturally taboo. Despite that adversity, many girls were still amping to surf and didn't want to be told by a man that they couldn't surf. Even one of our girls, Saipa, went to the government office and had a sealed document made affirming that it was her choice to surf and no one could stop her.
Although scared most times, I could not sit back and let these girls passions and joy diminish. We continued to do GMW but had to get creative. We would only travel to other surf spots, where we weren't “being watched.” Many times I sent the girls ahead in different tuk tuks while I took my kids in my own tuk tuk. We would all arrive at a surf spot, but walk separate from each other, as to not appear that I was helping them. Over time the fear began to slowly fade, but the girls never stopped getting comments from men everywhere we went. They were told that they should be home cooking and not out surfing and that surfing was only for men. Those girls have continued to hold their heads up high and response of, “well my husband encouraged me to come” has given those men quite the shock on their faces.
GMW’s has continued running over the last three years, through all the ups and downs. With the help of many Surfing The Nations teams and the return of Fresh Air Project, these local ladies have continually progressed in their surfing. One GMW’s event was taken to the south where the Fresh Air Project met up with us. On this trip we also felt nervous about making it public with the past trouble that we had. I hired a driver from far away that didn't know the situation, and made sure the van had black tinted windows. We left at 5 am so no one would know. We also had to make sure that no one was posting on social media to cause any issues. Once we got to the South, it was like breathing fresh air, and not having to watch over your back. The surf trip was amazing thanks to Ajay at Green Room in Weligama for hosting the event at his place in collaboration with Mysa from Coffee Point and Paolo from Eva Lanka. Our event on the south was successful. One south
girl named Dilini joined in also.
It has not been an easy road to push through some of the socio-economic issues that come with empowering women in overcoming the stigma that comes with a male dominant sport. Yet, now more than three years later, with the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka becoming established this
year and the desire for Sri Lanka to have a women’s surf team to represent them nationally and internationally, a new movement has come about.
In 2017, Martina Burtscher came to Sri Lanka and spent her summer getting to know our GMW ladies, interviewing and later writing her master’s thesis on Surfing for Women’s Empowerment. Upon her return this year, and along with Amanda Prifti, the three of us have co-initiated the first registered female surf club through the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka. The girls are stoked to get this off the ground and have the full support of the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka and Arugam Bay Surf Club.
On October 22nd, 2018, more history was made, when our Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club became the first registered female surf club in all of Sri Lanka.
We're stronger together: Tiffany holds hands with members of the Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club in the water.