For the first time, this year’s World Oceans Day gave 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 gender equality.
Women and the ocean
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. Globally, in most regions, fish-catching is male-dominated. However, women’s important role as support to seagoing spouses is highly undervalued in fishing communities.
Women remain largely excluded from decision and policy-making processes and are discriminated against in aquaculture with far fewer women-managed or owned enterprises. Data collection efforts often hinder the visibility of women’s contribution to fisheries, collecting data from heads of households, assumed to be male, or accounting only for jobs in capture fisheries. In science, women account for only 30% of the world’s scientific researchers, and the number of women pursuing careers in marine science and ocean research is much lower. In surfing, recent in-roads were made to address gender inequality with surfing’s professional body, the World Surfing League (WSL), announcing ‘equal pay for equal work’ in 2018, becoming one of the only US-based sports bodies requiring equal prize money for men and women. Clearly, huge inequalities still persist.
Discrimination in the surf
Dr. Rebecca Olive, an expert on physical cultures, documents the challenges faced by women who surf in Australia. Not all surfers are considered equal in the line-up. Olive argues that it is, in part, the systematic marginalisation of women in surf media that can lead to their exclusion at surf breaks as they are considered ‘outsiders.’
This can be even more pronounced for women of colour. In California, Dr. Belinda Wheaton researched the experiences of African-American women who surf. The notion of the beach as a free and fun space reflects a white, Western privileged position. Segregation was imposed in Southern California’s beaches the 1920s with many beaches limited to whites only, and ‘de facto’ segregation continuing through to the 1960s. These historical patterns of oppression can persist, forming invisible lines of segregation, especially when it comes to how we are taught to think about nature, the outdoors and the sea. Wheaton’s research highlights how beaches and surf breaks are still perceived and experienced by African American women as a place where they feel like outsiders or even ‘space invaders.’ A narrative being challenged and disrupted by African American women who surf, as one woman interviewed by Wheaton explained:
So it’s kind of been like a, my personal mission to let folks know, to let black people know, so that we can open the door to new opportunities and new thinking to think differently about ourselves so that we can take advantage of all the things that might be available to us.
IIn Iran, where a surfing culture has only begun to emerge in the last six years, women negotiating their position at the beach and in the surf face specific gender barriers, not least the lack of appropriate and functional surf-wear. Although the sport was initiated by women in 2013, the challenge of accessing these experiences for women from ethnic minority groups persists, an issue that prevails across cultures more generally for women in sport.
Beach culture, including surfing, is dominated by white western privilege. Actually, that goes for most outdoor nature-spaces. The numerous benefits to human health that come from accessing the water are not equally distributed. Minority ethnic groups, for example, have the least access to the coast for its recreational value, and for women of these communities it is even lower.
The tide is turning
Women are also more likely to be affected by rapid environmental and climate change, which can be particularly acute in coastal regions. According to the UN, women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster.
Women are especially vulnerable in coastal regions, four times as many women as men died in the Asian tsunami in December 2004, and in some regions 80% of the fatalities were women. In response, women are spearheading compassionate solutions around the world, such as the recent launch of the Women’s Connected Leadership Declaration on Climate Justice and the award winning podcast, Mothers of Invention, celebrating women doing remarkable things in pursuit of environmental and climate justice.
In surfing 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 in addition to equal prize-money the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) was established to continue to advocate for equality, inclusion, equal access, and pay parity in surfing.
By adopting more ethical approaches and new ways of being in the sea and surf, women are contributing to a cultural change in surfing. 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 filmmakers 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.
Stories are needed 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. The 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.