One in a Billion: Searching for swell with India's first female surfer

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A massive statue of a Tamil poet-saint glistened in the sun on the distant shoreline as we paddled further into the coalescence of waters where the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea unite. We found a little lineup of gentle breaking waves and floated on our surfboards with feet dangling in the tea-colored ocean—the most southern humans off the subcontinent. It was a welcome moment of oceanic solace away from the bustling experience of terrestrial India.

Life as a professional surfer is fun but can become routine: travel to stunning remote equatorial locations and score un-crowded surf. Repeat. But this trip was different. There was no guarantee of epic surf—or any surf at all, for that matter. We were here to experience a different kind of wave, one epitomized by 26-year-old Ishita Malaviya, who, amid 1.3 billion humans and about 7,500 kilometers of coastline, is the first recognized female surfer in her country.

A recent Thomson Reuters Foundation poll ranked India as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, just behind Afghanistan, Congo, and Pakistan. Female feticide and, to a lesser degree, infanticide are still common occurrences—between 300,000 and 600,000 female fetuses are aborted each year in India because cultural norms value male children over female children, revealing deeply ingrained sex-based discrimination before girls even enter the world.

Once Indian girls are born, most begin a lifelong battle against “normalized sexism,” or being considered less valuable, capable, and worthy than their brothers. A common Indian proverb states, “raising girls is like watering someone else’s lawn,” suggesting the burden and even needless nature of having female children. Despite being a modernizing, democratic nation, India cannot seem to escape the shackles of its traditional gender roles.

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In spite of the country’s often searing heat, traditional dress codes dictate that Indian women dress in a sari, nine yards of fabric expertly wrapped, folded, and draped around the body.
— Photo by Lauren Hill

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A 2011 study by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey revealed that as many as 65% of Indian men believe that “women sometimes deserve to be beaten,” an obvious indicator of the patriarchal power structures that govern relations between genders there. In India, as is still the case in many parts of the world, women are bereft of opportunities for education or exploration outside of duties to family and home, leaving many of them endlessly dependent on male family members for financial support. 

In spite of the country’s often searing heat, traditional dress codes dictate that Indian women dress in a sari, nine yards of fabric expertly wrapped, folded, and draped around the body, or Salwar Kameez—modest suits—not exactly get-ups conducive to being physically dynamic. Ishita Malaviya forgoes both options and gets around in classic surfwear, board shorts, and a tank top.

With an attitudinal alchemy of bravery, naiveté, sass, and youthful subversion, Malaviya boldly takes “surfer girl” where it’s never gone before, on a collision course with ancient Indian customs, sexist religious traditions, and assumptions about women’s roles in her society.

I was traveling and surfing in India with Ishita as part of a documentary film project called Beyond the Surface, which explores the use of surfing as a tool for social development, community building, and sustainability. Much of the Beyond the Surface project revolves around Ishita’s accomplishments as a surfer and as a woman in a country where traditional gender roles are still the norm and surfing is wholly counterculture.

A 2011 study by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey revealed that as many as 65 percent of Indian men believe that “women sometimes deserve to be beaten”

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Ishita takes a moment to pose with her board before heading to the beach in the seaside village of Manapad. — Photo by Lauren Hill

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“I have always been drawn to the ocean,” Ishita says, her dark eyes scanning the horizon. “And ever since I caught my first wave, I knew I was going to be surfing for the rest of my life.”

Ishita forged her destiny as a surfer by answering the call of the ocean, having the audacity to see her dreams through, and with a little help from her progressive parents, who supported her in pursuing higher education and following her heart even when it led her astray from cultural norms.

Venturing away from home to earn her degree in journalism set Ishita unknowingly down a path toward the ocean. She uprooted from the big smoke of Mumbai—with a population of more than 20 million—to a small seaside village.

“By the time I finished high school I was tired of living in the city and wanted desperately to move to a smaller, more peaceful place, and live closer to nature. I decided to move to the university village of Manipal to pursue my higher studies. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would start surfing here!”

Ishita’s long, lanky frame folds in giggling enthusiasm as she recalls her first waves. Her bright smile and effervescence overflow; she is the Indian incarnation of the girl next door.

Ishita and her boyfriend, Tushar, learned to surf from an American ex-pat who set up camp just down the coast from them in Manipal. The couple have since opened their own camp, The Shaka Surf Club, to spread surfing stoke among the kids in their community.

Just a few years after she stepped on a surfboard, the global surf industry, with its eyes ever on developing the next market, snatched up Ishita. Roxy sent her to Europe on her first photo shoot and had her posing in swimwear from day one, despite the fact that she had never before worn a bikini in public.

By the time I finished high school I was tired of living in the city and wanted desperately to move to a smaller, more peaceful place, and live closer to nature.

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Ishita surveys the surf with Manapad Women’s Self Help group, a 50 year old organization that has created many opportunities for women to gain financial independence.
— Photo by Erik Knutson

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While scouring the coastline for a decent wave, Ishita and our international crew of professional surfers came upon a remote beach at the foot of a lush wildlife refuge. Since the ocean had again refused to deliver any swell, we went for a swim.

The sun was hammering down, practically melting us in our culturally appropriate outfits. The long-sleeved shirts and long skirts were excessively hot, heatstroke-inducing for such a climate. We eagerly peeled back the layers to finally enjoy the freedom of being in bikinis—even if it was just for a moment on the secluded beach.

I hot-sand-hop-scotched toward the ocean, hurling my body into the shorebreak. Ishita and Tushar hung back, chatted for a moment, and both slowly, self-consciously, tossed their bulks of fabric onto the nearly steaming sand. Standing on the beach in her bikini, Ishita beamed confidently, her high cheekbones highlighted by the midday sun.

She gracefully dove in headfirst and swam beyond the breaking waves with Tushar not far behind. They smiled at each other and exchanged the shy giggles of a pair of mischievous children experiencing liberation through rule-breaking. Despite surfing for the past five years, Ishita had never gotten into the ocean in just a bikini—not once. (She wore bikinis all the time, but always respectfully tucked beneath rashguards and boardshorts.)

I was shocked because before we’d met I had seen the modeling photos of Ishita in a bikini on the beach. But they were a façade; she’d been used as the face for a campaign to sell a lifestyle that she hadn’t yet even fully experienced for herself.

I swam beside Ishita and watched as she dove and splashed, explored the gliding and beading of water over her brown skin in a way she’d never felt before. It was empowering to watch her slip through the sea freely, without the hindrance of fabric’s resistance to slow her momentum.

Ishita and her boyfriend, Tushar one-in-a-billion-5_inset2

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Emi Koch riding a wave. Emi founded the Beyond the Surface, an international NGO that promotes education, conflict resolution, health, and community development through surfing.
— Photo by Lauren Hill

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The act of jumping into the ocean in a bikini is so seemingly insignificant that most western women would never think twice about it. Stripping down is one of the great pleasures of being a surfer. Feeling energized ocean brine lap upon your skin without barrier, shedding layers of the terrestrial world and surrendering to wild nature, is part of the mysterious magic of choosing a life aquatic.

Experiencing it all for the first time, Ishita looked unfazed. Curious, I asked her how it felt.

“I dunno, I mean, it feels great,” she said, with a shoulder shrug and a gentle smile. “It’s liberating to feel so incredibly light and free in the water. I wish I could do it more often.”

And that was it. Ishita seems unconcerned with and unoccupied by any of the groundbreaking that she does. For her, it’s just life as she chooses to live it—nothing political or outstanding.

But if the feminist movement has taught us anything, it’s that the personal is deeply political, even if we have yet to recognize it.

The act of jumping into the ocean in a bikini is so seemingly insignificant that most western women would never think twice about it.

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Manapad children after school, ecstatically returning Ishita and Lauren’s ‘shaka’.
— Photo by Liz Clark

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Along our journey, we visited the Kovalam Surf Club, part of the Sebastian Indian Social Projects, which takes in severely disadvantaged children and provides them with educational opportunities, medical care, and nourishing meals. There are around 30 children in the surf club, five of them girls.

We met the kids under a grove of palm trees, with sprinklings of fluorescent plastic ice cream wrappers all around—the refuse of snack time. The sand burned our feet as we ran through the midday sun toward the ocean.

We asked the five girls to come swimming with us. Some of the girls were timid at first and one simply refused, saying that she couldn’t because her mother would beat her if she went swimming.

In India, as in much of Asia, swimming or surfing or anything that involves being outside is considered taboo behavior in part because of cultural norms that value light skin (despite the propensity for skin at this latitude to be dark). Young girls are told to avoid the sun and not to let their skin get too dark, or else they might not find a suitor. It’s part of a bizarre global beauty myth that somehow tells women with light skin to get a tan and women with dark skin to stay inside for fear of darkening.

Ishita told us that her relatives and friends often remark about how dark she’s become from so much surfing. “Have you been working in a charcoal factory?” a professor once laughingly asked her.

We met the kids under a grove of palm trees, with sprinklings of fluorescent plastic ice cream wrappers all around—the refuse of snack time. The sand burned our feet as we ran through the midday sun toward the ocean.

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Lauren Hill sits on her board in the calm waters of India’s East coast. — Photo by Erik Knutson

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Ishita bounded into the water without hesitation. The girls stood ankle deep, hesitant at first, until she beamed them a wide smile and yelled “c’mon” with both arms waving. They came skipping in a pack, racing through the shallows to wrap their arms around her waist.

The girls transformed as they immersed themselves in the sea, throwing their heads back in laughter and pitching their bodies in twirls and cartwheels. In the sea, they have a safe space to play, where they can be children—perhaps one of the last opportunities for the girls reaching puberty, after which they begin the training to be married off.

The girls’ eyes glimmered at the sight of Ishita. I imagine they saw her as an invincible ocean goddess, untamed by the elements or cultural norms; one who looks like them, but who’s daring to live adventurously. They held her hands and splashed and played and bubbled with questions: “Do you surf?” “Do your parents know you surf?” “Are you married?”

In retrospect, Ishita reflected, “I don’t think they’d ever seen any other Indian girls in the water before. I shared my honest answers and felt like I was able to connect with them. It really put things in perspective for me. I was reminded how fortunate I am to have loving and supportive parents who’ve always given me the freedom to make my own choices.”

That’s the real beauty of Ishita Malaviya. She’s writing a new story for women in India by doing what she loves, even if that means trimming over old stories and expectations. She’s reweaving a new way of being for women, demonstrating how to gracefully navigate surging swells, be they cultural or natural.

The girls transformed as they immersed themselves in the sea, throwing their heads back in laughter and pitching their bodies in twirls and cartwheels.

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Lauren Hill

Lauren Lindsey Hill, originally from St. Augustine, Florida, is a professional free-surfer and writer. Her work, which revolves around marine conservation and egalitarianism as they relate to surfing culture, has been published academically, in surfing and mainstream media. Recently, Lauren participated in the Transparentsea Voyage, traversing 270 miles down the Californian coastline on an 18-foot kayak to raise awareness about coastal environmental issues there. She serves as an ambassador for the NGOs Women for Whales and Surfers for Cetaceans. 
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More about the film: www.BeyondtheSurfaceFilm.com