Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is home to the world’s longest uninterrupted natural beach. From afar, it looks like a paradise of golden sand but for young girls growing up in the local community, life can be suffocating. Poverty and a deeply patriarchal society leave them with few options. Despite progress in recent years, data from 2005-2013 shows 29% of Bangladeshi girls were married before the age of 15 and 65% were married by age 18.
Surf teacher Rashed Alam began offering lessons to local girls a year ago and the effect has been dramatic. The young surfers have pushed through societal pressures that cast surfing as a “western” sport for men only and negative pressure from their families. They’ve grown more independent, confident and with lessons from Rashed’s American wife Venessa Rude, have begun to pick up English skills.
Inspired by the story of teenage girls breaking through social barriers to hit the surf, photographer Giulio Paletta spent time with Rashed, Venessa and the girls themselves. We hit him up to find out more.
What brought you to the surf school in Bangladesh?
I found out about the lifesaving and surfing club while browsing on the internet. How I found it was quite random, but I like stories that kind of come to me even better because I see it as a sign that I have to do those stories.
The story immediately took my attention; I found it amazing that in a country like Bangladesh, where the social and economic situation is so difficult, and where surf is poorly known, these girls and the couple who is taking care of them, Venessa Rude and Rashed Alam, were so passionate about it that they decided to dedicate their life to this sport.
What are the challenges faced by young girls who want to surf?
The Bengali culture is strictly closed and attached to its traditions. The society is very patriarchal and has very old-fashioned traditions. So for a girl, it is very difficult to be totally independent and emancipate herself from her parents or her husband. With all of this, it is even more difficult or unlikely for a girl to be practising a sport like surfing. It is considered a sport for men only and a “western” style sport which goes against the traditions of the country.
Can surfing be a force for change?
Indeed it can be. And I personally saw it in action in Bangladesh. Although it’s been slow, more and more young people have been attracted to surf in recent years in Bangladesh. They’ve found a way to feel free and be more linked to western culture.
From the point of view of these girls, surfing can be a positive force in their future. It supports them to become independent and emancipated women, who should one day be able to provide alone for their children and families, which is a very rare thing in this country.
What are the most important lessons you picked up while shooting the project?
That with a strong will you can go wherever you want and be whoever you want to be. These young and talented girls taught me that there are no limitations, no obstacles that can prevent you from doing whatever you want to do in life.
The surfer girls of Bangladesh are stronger and more committed than any other people I ever met, and I am sure they will reach great results in their lives, thanks to the help of Venessa and Rashed, and all the people worldwide who are helping them.
Check out more from photographer Giulio Paletta.