One Friday morning in January 2017, a crowd gathered along the beach fringing Cox’s Bazar, a port town in southern Bangladesh. Old men wearing panjabi robes stroked their beards. Pot-bellied middle-aged men pushed their sunglasses up onto their foreheads. Boys took off their skullcaps, scratching their heads. They all stared at a bizarre sight: the Bangladesh Girls and Boys Surf Club.
Nine girls and 13 boys stood at parade attention, propping up foam-top surfboards. The equipment intrigued the onlookers, since surfing is almost unknown in Bangladesh. Despite the country’s lengthy coastline and the fact that 80% of the nation lies in a marshy floodplain, few Bangladeshis can swim and over 17,000 children drown annually.
But the girls were more startling to the crowd than the surfboards. As their uncovered ponytails blew freely in the wind, the male onlookers whispered and glared. Women are often cloistered in the conservative Islamic country. From their early teens, they are usually chaperoned by male relatives, and 74 percent are married by age 18, according to UNICEF. Few participate in sports. Wearing a headscarf or burqa is not legally required, but there are strong cultural pressures to do so, especially in backwaters like Cox’s Bazar.
The children focused on Rashed Alam, a muscular 28-year-old Bangladeshi lifeguard and the club’s founder, as he called forward two of the girls, Suma Atkar and Shumi Atkar (no relation), to demonstrate how to rescue a drowning victim. Suma, a 15-year-old with a knife-like scar dividing her right cheek, seemed to flinch from the attention, staring at her toes. Shumi, 13, reveled in it, smiling at everyone. They were next-door neighbors and best friends, and their sister-like solidarity ran deeper than their matching golden earrings, red lipstick, and orange-painted fingernails.
Suma swam through the breakers and splashed in simulated distress. Shumi paddled to her on a longboard, dragged her friend onto it, then surfed them both to shore. On the sand, Shumi pretended to give Suma CPR. Murmurs ran through the crowd at the sight of a girl in wet clingy clothes, almost kissing another girl. The men pressed forward.
Shumi snapped her hand, as if flicking water from her fingertips, and the crowd retreated, seemingly staggered by her forwardness.
The rest of the young surfers practiced while Rashed asked Suma and Shumi to instruct two 11-year-old girls. They were proud of their role as teachers. “Rescuing people makes me feel capable,” Suma told me. “In our culture, men always rescue the women,” Shumi added. “I feel good when I do this, because almost no woman rescues anyone.” The Surf Club was everything to them, they said. “It lets us be who we want to be when the world won’t,” Shuma said.
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