Meet The Female Surfers Breaking Waves – And Cultural Taboos – In The Maldives
Naha Nasrulla might be the only surfer in the world who can’t actually swim. It’s not that this 23-year-old Maldivian has any fear of the water. But growing up in a conservative community in the south of this archipelago of paradise islands in the Indian Ocean, Nasrulla was stopped by her mother from entering the water in case the tropical sun turned her light skin too dark.
“It’s kind of a racist thing,” Nasrulla admits. “Especially among older people. They don’t want you to get too tanned. I was not allowed to go into the sea until I turned 18.” Her friend Rishtha Shuja chimes in: “It happened to me too, with my grandparents. I used to be a very fair child too. Now that I’ve got tanned they will be like, ‘There she goes again to the ocean. Look at her colour now, she’s gotten so dark.’”
Offensive cultural attitudes about skin colour are not the only obstacles to women’s surfing in the Maldives. This is a Muslim country, and patriarchal notions about gender roles are deep-rooted. Aya Naseem, a marine biologist and keen surfer, tells how she used to be “harassed on the road” when she was first seen heading down to the ocean with her surfboard.
“When I started surfing, it really wasn’t a women’s thing to do. It had a stigma attached to it,” she recalls. Thanks in no small part to Naseem’s efforts, in the past decade things have really changed. The final barrier to women’s participation in surfing was broken in 2021 when the Maldives Surf Association agreed to include a women’s category for the first time. Naseem scooped first prize and Nasrulla came in third.
Having beaten racism and sexism to get out and ride the waves, the girls still face one remaining challenge: the sharp coral rocks that lie beneath the waters of the best reef breaks. “We’ve got scars and cuts all over,” says Nasrulla. Shuja’s biggest fear is spiny sea urchins. “They’re very poisonous,” she explains. But the rush of surfing obscures the pain. As Naseem says, “You don’t even realise until you come back. Yesterday there was blood in the boat and I was like, ‘Where is that coming from?’ And it was my foot!”
Sadly, the reef breaks of the Maldives are now threatened. Many corals have been destroyed by harbours and other developments, and climate change is an existential threat to coral reefs both in these islands and worldwide. As the tropical oceans warm up, corals ‘bleach’ as the water becomes too hot to sustain the embedded algae that keep the tiny coral polyps alive. Naseem explains: “We lose a lot of coral every time we have bleaching events. And that’s devastating for us, because when we lose the top layer of coral it’s like we’re losing a breakwater. The islands are more exposed, so they start eroding.” Naseem is co-founder of the Maldives Coral Institute, which is focused on a desperate battle to save the coral reefs.
But surfing will always remain a passion. “When you get on the board, there’s no other feeling quite like it,” she enthuses. And in the process, Nasrulla is finally getting swimming lessons. “She’s doing great,” says Naseem. “Today we pushed the board away from her and she had to swim back to it.” She pauses. “Doggy paddle is a perfectly acceptable way to get back to your surfboard.”
5 Must-Do Activities In The Maldives
- Eat mashuni roshi for breakfast – a traditional dish of tuna, coconut, lime and chilli.
- Visit the capital city Malé. Don’t miss the Old Friday Mosque, a beautiful structure made from coral stone dating from 1656.
- Join a Maldivian family for afternoon ‘short eats’ (traditional snacks). Your resort or guesthouse can help organise this.
- Dive with manta rays and whale sharks in Hanifaru Bay, a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
- Snorkel a coral reef to see turtles, sharks and incredible tropical fish.
Mark Lynas is an author and campaigner based in Wales. He is climate advisor to former president of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, and his latest book is Our Final Warning: Six Degrees Of Climate Emergency