‘Waving’ goodbye to stereotypes, the Arugam Bay Surfing Club is an all-woman surfer’s group from Sri Lanka. By becoming the country’s first officially registered female surf club, they hope to create a safe space for themselves in a largely male-dominated sport. By Bayar Jain
Located off Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, the tiny fishing community of Arugam Bay is famously called surfer’s paradise. This sandy paradise is often speckled with locals and tourists either riding the serene blue waves or preparing to. Shamali Sanjaya, the founder of Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club – Sri Lanka’s first recognised all-girls’ surfer’s club, along with California surfer Tiffany Carothers changed this landscape.
Born into a family of surfers, Sanjaya was naturally gifted. However, being in the lineup as a child often resulted in embarrassment since she was the only female in queue. Surfing, as far as locals were concerned, was meant only for men and female tourists.
In 2011, though, things changed drastically. A California surfer named Tiffany Carothers volunteered with Surfing The Nations, a humanitarian non-profit organisation that aims to bring a positive impact in the society through surfing. During one of their tours, Carothers landed in Sri Lanka to help rebuild homes in the region after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Here, she met Sanjaya. The two would sneak in surf sessions together when Sanjaya’s family went out of town. Being caught by family would mean bringing shame to their name.
In 2015, Carothers and Sanjaya, along with visiting Australian surfers, organised an event to teach more women to surf. While many local women stepped into the water and took up surfing, Carothers faced with backlash for it. Her family was insinuated to either provide sewing machine to women if she wanted to help or to simply leave the bay. The women, however, did not like this idea.
To sustain their passion to surf, Carothers, Sanjaya, and the newly trained women started to continue their training discreetly. Practicing in distant waters eventually became a routine. “We’d go to surf breaks that were far away. I’d put the girls in tuk-tuks and I’d get my own and they would go off separately so it didn’t look like we were all together. We’d show up at the same surf break and walk out separately,” says Carothers.
Luckily, as the years went by, locals started supporting women surfers. They were no longer confined to the molds of a ‘housewife’ and ‘caretaker.’ Although they still get teased every now and then, the formalisation of an all-women’s surf club has got the ball rolling for a better, more accepting future. Slowly, but steadily, the tides are turning.