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.
Just a few years before, they’d been selling eggs on the beach, like the kids who now watched them from the shore with awe. Rashed noticed one six-year-old girl clutching a plastic bag filled with water bottles. “Firefly,” he softly called. Firefly smiled at him, then fled into the crowd.
Rashed understood her hesitation. After he’d recruited girls to join his surf club about four years earlier, it had become a global social media darling, attracting thousands of dollars in donations from across the world, and allowing Americans and Europeans to assert their vision of what life should be like for Bangladeshi women.
But the club had also been attacked by male Bangladeshi surfers who claimed women belonged in the home and not on the waves. And the surfer girls’ neighbors and families were uncomfortable with the growing influence of Western ideals of gender equality on their patriarchal Islamic society. The situation had grown so tense that the girls’ lives had even been threatened—and while they didn’t know it, Rashed worried that they would soon face a whole new set of challenges, alone.
It’s a minor miracle that the Bangladesh Girls and Boys Surf Club ever started at all.
When Suma was 11 years old, her mother would kneel beside Suma’s mattress of dried leaves at 4 A.M. and wake her by stroking her hair. Then Suma would balance a blue plastic bucket pregnant with hardboiled eggs atop her head and trudge into an unlit slum. She’d once asked her mother why she couldn’t go to school. “You have to make money,” her mother had answered.
By dawn, Suma would be lilting, “Sid’dha ḍima, sid’dha ḍima!”—“Boiled eggs, boiled eggs!”—to early-rising vacationers on the world’s longest beach, a 75-mile highway of white sand. Suma sold eggs for about a dime while keeping an eye out for police who’d chase her with sticks and warn her not to bother tourists again. (It’s common practice for children to work in Bangladesh, even though it’s technically illegal for those under 14.)
Suma liked only two things about the beach. The first was watching the few surfers who balanced on the waves, just offshore. The second was having Shumi keep her company while they both sold eggs.
Rashed, one of the local lifeguards and the leader of the local surf club, was their best customer. Every morning he’d breakfast on a boiled egg, tipping them with a kind word, and they ran to him for comfort and protection when the police bothered them. He’d repeatedly offered to teach them to surf, but they always fled, giggling. Only men surfed.
After several months of watching the surfers, Shumi suggested, “Why not? We could try.” Suma clung to Rashed as he led her into the shallows. “The first time in the water was so scary because I couldn’t swim,” Suma told me. “But when Rashed pushed me into a wave, I realized I loved it.” The surfboard channeled the power of the ocean, making even the smallest person feel big. On her third wave, Suma sprang to her feet: a natural.
Before long, Rashed was teaching the girls during his lunch breaks. He had a history of taking downtrodden beach boys under his wing, teaching them to surf and training them to be lifeguards. He’d been in their situation once; he’d left school at age six to rent out riding ponies and inner tubes to tourists, before a chance encounter with Australian surfers led him to pick up a board, master surfing, and make a living as a lifeguard. And unlike many Bangladeshi men, he believed girls should be given the same opportunities as boys. His father taught him “that women should be respected just as much as men,” he said. His American girlfriend, Venessa Rude, who’d moved to Cox’s Bazar to teach impoverished women, encouraged him to help the girls as well. Soon, six more girls were putting down the eggs, bananas, and water bottles they sold to tourists and joining Suma and Shumi in the waves for an hour or two each day.
The girls managed to keep their newfound hobby secret from their parents—until Shumi tore her shalwar kameez (the traditional brightly-patterned pants, scarf, and tunic worn in Bangladesh) surfing. Her mother found out and banned her daughter from the sport. She worried about the lost wages from egg sales, but mostly that the taint of Western immorality would damage her daughter’s marriage prospects. (Shumi was lucky to escape with just a verbal rebuke—another mother would later pull her daughter from the water and beat her with a sun umbrella.) Shumi introduced Rashed to her parents to show them he was not a bad man. “Surfing can improve their lives, like it did mine,” Rashed promised them. “Maybe one day they can even become lifeguards.” In the end, Rashed managed to convince the girls’ reluctant parents.
Surfing became the best part of Suma’s life. The adrenaline and focus scrubbed her worries away. Previously, her joys had been furtive: playing tag with the other kids in the salt cedars that lined the beach instead of working, or eating one of her own eggs instead of selling it. To have this much happiness seemed dangerous.
And in the water, she was safe. Over two years, Suma mastered surfing, but she also grew from a pre-teen into a 13-year-old teenager, and increasingly received unwanted attention from the mostly-male crowd at Cox’s Bazar. In Bangladesh, sexual harassment is so theatrical, relentless, and unashamed that it seems ironic, until its ubiquity and venom make clear it’s serious. Men drinking tea at a roadside stall would yell at the surf girls, “Want to go somewhere?” The surf girls started to be groped on the beach.
But the men could only wade in the sea’s shallows, while behind the breakers, the girls drummed on their boards and chorused Bollywood songs. The crowd would stare disapprovingly at their backs, and when Suma did turn to face their judgment, she’d ride the ocean like a conqueror.
Eventually, though, she always had to paddle back to land.
Two years into her tenure with the club, Suma decided she couldn’t hawk eggs anymore. The harassment from men on the beach was overwhelming. “If you aren’t going to work, I don’t have the money to feed you,” her mother said.
Rashed knew that unless he found a way to financially support Suma and her family, she’d have to work. The other girls were confronting this pitiless calculus, too: another girl’s mother beat her for failing to make enough money selling shell necklaces. Rashed and Venessa had befriended Allison Joyce, an American freelance photojournalist who’d come to Cox’s Bazar on assignment to take pictures of the male surfers, but who had become fascinated by the girls. A fearless, vocal advocate for women’s rights, Allison carried a baton and pepper spray to deter the constant sexual harassment she faced while working in Bangladeshi communities—and she did not hesitate to threaten leering men with them. Soon, Allison was commuting frequently to Cox’s Bazar from her bases in India and Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, to help tutor the girls with Venessa. Over the years, she’d become a surrogate mother and fierce protector of the girls, and the three friends debated how to help them.
In February 2015, they decided to set up a GoFundMe.com campaign, featuring a picture of Suma and Shumi flashing the “hang loose” hand sign and promising that $50 would feed and educate a surf girl for a month. Riding publicity generated by Allison’s photos—published on National Geographic’s website and in the Los Angeles Times—they quickly exceeded their original goal of $9,600. Their GoFundMe page filled with comments from Western women like “GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUNdamental human rights” and “Keep fighting the good fight! BRAVO!!”
The windfall allowed Rashed to buy monthly donations of rice, lentils, tea, and other essentials for the girls’ families, so they could surf instead of work. He paid their school fees and for after-school tutors. He encouraged the girls not to marry young and swore he’d support them through university. Suddenly, his exhortations to dream big no longer seemed like empty promises. “We finally believed we could really become surfers!” Shumi said, and this had been Rashed’s most important goal: “I wanted to change everyone’s way of thinking,” he told me.
Before, the residents of Cox’s Bazar had ignored the girls as an oddity, and the older boys in the surf club disinterestedly humored them. But the success of the fundraising campaign boosted the girls’ profile—and challenged the established order of burqas and female domesticity. If the surf girls could shred waves in front of thousands of onlookers at the beach and be heralded by the West, why couldn’t the rest of Bangladesh’s women?
“One of my aunts would always ask my parents, ‘Why are you letting her surf? She’s not going to get a good husband,’” Shumi said. Her brother, who was heavily involved in politics, “would come home and say, ‘My reputation is suffering from this.’” He was especially furious when pictures of her surfing appeared on Facebook—widely used in Bangladesh—and worried that the family was being shamed in front of the whole country.
“What do I care?” Shumi told her family. “I’ll get a master’s degree and become a doctor. I don’t need a husband to look after me!”
When Rashed visited America for the first time in the summer of 2015 with Venessa, whom he’d married in Bangladesh at the beginning of the year, the pressure on the surf girls increased. GoFundMe publicly displays the amount of money raised, so the male surfers—a collection of lifeguards and twenty-something beach boys who surfed under the banner of the club—could see that the girls had received around $10,000, a staggering sum in a country where the average person earns $3,900 a year. Rashed had explained to the men that the patriarchal structure of Bangladeshi society meant they received a disproportionate amount of resources; they could support themselves, so the money needed to go to the girls, who would otherwise have to return to working the beach.
But without Rashed to diffuse the mounting tension, as he had in the past, the situation fishtailed out of control. Some of the male surfers warned the girls not to surf and began making crude advances on them. And once Rashed returned to Cox’s Bazar about a month later, his childhood surfing buddies asked him to share the money. When he wouldn’t, they turned against him and accused him of using it for personal gain, like buying a plane ticket to America. Though the contributions looked like a lot, it cost about $750 to feed and educate the eight girls every month, and the donations were being spent almost as fast as they were coming in. “They weren’t just jealous over money,” Rashed said. “The men thought everything should go to them first, because they think men have more value than women, and women should be sitting at their feet.”
Over the next three months, the club split into two factions: Rashed, the girls, and a few feminist boys on one side, with the rest of the several dozen surfers on the other. The surfers began plowing the girls off waves. Then they changed the locks on the club, effectively depriving them of their boards. Several other surfing lifeguards forced Rashed out of his job, which he felt was in retaliation for his support of the girls.
In late March 2016, the two sides held a summit in the garage-like club in an almost deserted public market near the beach. It quickly devolved into a screaming match. “Why are you surfing anyway?” one surf boy demanded of the girls, according to Allison. “Once you’re 13 or 14, you’ll be married.” Another threatened to break the legs of any girls he saw on the beach.
Rashed started escorting the several of the girls home in the evening, scared they might be attacked by the surfers on their 45-minute climb along unlit jungle paths into the slums. In early April, Rashed, Allison, and the girls went to the police, but the officials laughed off suggestions that the girls needed protection. Allison posted an SOS on Facebook: “Right now we are very scared of the very real possibility that the girls will be attacked and/or raped. We feel like something very bad is going to happen to them.” The post was shared hundreds of times and inspired dozens of outraged comments from people around the world, many of whom framed it as a clash between Western and conservative values. The police station was flooded with calls from across Bangladesh, including several from liberal politicians, and even some from as far away as Japan and London.
The same globe-spanning power of social media that had made the girls’ full-time surfing possible now protected them by focusing the world’s attention on a remote police station in Bangladesh. The outcry forced the hand of the police. They sat the surf boys down and warned them: These girls have better connections than you. Then the police asked four ringleaders to sign a document promising to “shoulder all the responsibilities if any harm is caused to our female members.”
But the male surfers felt the outside attention had aggravated the conflict within the club. After the fights, the club shut down. Venessa returned to America. Allison could only visit occasionally because of her work schedule. Rashed stayed, living in his childhood room, unsure what would happen if he left. No matter how much it cost him, he had sworn he would do right by the girls. So from his father’s house, he started a new surf club—this time, just for the girls and younger boys.
A year later, on an afternoon in February 2017, Shumi and Suma, now 13 and 15, shouldered through overcrowded slum alleyways, hiked over a forested ridge, and followed an asphalt road, jammed with men peddling rickshaws, toward Rashed’s new surf club. He’d recently moved it from his father’s house into a storefront in a crumbling public market next to the beach, so the girls wouldn’t have to carry the boards a kilometer to sea. The night before, Rashed had thrown a party to celebrate the new clubhouse and honor the visit of a major donor, Sonia Kabir, the head of Microsoft Bangladesh. For days afterward, Rashed would remind the girls of the inspirational speech Sonia had given during her visit, telling them, “Remember: you can be just like Sonia if you put your mind to it.” Finally, the surf club was back.
While the male surfers had mostly stayed away from the girls, deterred by the police’s protective order, other men remained as threatening as ever. As Suma and Shumi neared the new club, passing a bank, a security guard yelled, “Hey Shumi! Don’t act like you don’t know me.” Shumi whirled around and told him to be quiet. Then two of the guard’s friends advanced on her, blowing kisses and mocking, “Hey, Shumi, I love you.” The girls fled, their shalwar kameez fluttering behind them. “Don’t tell Rashed!” the guard yelled after them.
The men of Cox’s Bazar might not have changed much since Suma and Shumi sold eggs on the beach, but the girls had become wiser and more resilient. Suma had decided she wanted to graduate from high school and become a professional surfer. Shumi, who was one of the captains of her grade at school, still hoped to get a master’s degree and study to be a doctor, as she’d told her family the year before. Their view of what they might accomplish in life had transformed. “Men would always tell me, A girl will always be a girl; they will always be in the home,” Shumi told me. “Now I see that this is not fair.”
But for the surf girls, it seemed as if every victory was followed by another battle. Soon they would have to stand on their own: Rashed had decided to move to America to be with his wife. The decision wracked him with preemptive guilt, but in their two years of marriage, he and Venessa had spent little time together. The struggles with the other surfers and the community had worn him down. And he’d exhausted his savings supporting himself and the girls while managing the club. Rashed laid plans for two of the oldest surf boys to take over, but everyone remembered how quickly things had fallen apart during his month-long visit to the U.S. two years before. He tried to believe that everything would turn out okay, but he couldn’t help worrying. While most of the girls’ parents agreed to continue supporting their daughters’ surfing, just that month, one of the girls’ mothers had forced her to return to selling eggs.
It was not the Hollywood ending Rashed had dreamed of, but he promised to keep in daily touch with the girls over Skype and visit as often as possible. Even if the club fell apart, he told himself, the girls would retain the inner strength they had learned surfing. No one could undermine that. Their dreams would burn on, even in the inhospitable conditions of Bangladesh, no matter if the unique conditions that lit them did not last.
The next morning, 12 surf girls and six boys stood on the beach. Rashed watched as Shumi pushed her little brother, who had just started to surf, on a funboard in the whitewater. Suma instructed a new girl how to strap on her ankle leash, as Rashed had once taught her.
When Suma and Shumi’s students became too tired and cold to continue, the friends paddled north, away from the usual lecherous crowd, the wind whipping their hair and showering them with spray. Soon, a clean two-foot wave reared out of the ocean. They exchanged a glance and took off, riding straight ahead in perfect parallel, whooping to each other. Suma noticed a swell peaking farther down the beach and paddled to the new break, while Shumi stayed behind to gossip with the other girls. Surfing was a social activity for Shumi; for Suma, it was her life. Alone, she carved wave after wave, relentless, enraptured.
Finally exhausted, she let a roller sweep her to shore in a remote section of the beach, deserted except for four young men splashing in the shallows. They followed her, whispering, as she carried her short board through a strong headwind. Soon, she passed a group of paunchy old men wearing skullcaps who pointed at her and laughed. With her chin raised and shoulders squared, she left the men behind.
Shumi was sitting on the sand at the edge of the crowd, waiting for her. As they cut inland, Firefly, the young beach vendor, emerged from the scrum, clutching her water bottles to her chest, and stealthily followed them. At the rundown public bathroom on the edge of the beach, the girls put on their makeup, brushed out their hair, and straightened their shalwar kameez, while two young men with unkempt mustaches and an old man in a white robe peered at them through the changing room’s open doorframe. In the girls’ lives, courage took many forms. It was as simple as stepping into the streets. It was dreaming of living a bigger life than the one their society had told them to expect, knowing that that emblazoned a target on their backs.
When they emerged, the men stumbled out of their way.
The completion of this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.