Surfer/Journalist/Author
nassima atker

Nassima, stoked. Photo: Heather Kessinger


The Inertia

I love the way stories spread in this era.  A couple of years ago, I flew to Bangladesh and reported a story for AFARMagazine about a homeless girl, Nassima Atker, who’d miraculously become one of the country’s best surfers. (Yes, there is surfing in Bangladesh.) Despite having to beg for survival, despite being constantly teased and taunted by men and women who say surfing is inappropriate for girls, despite living in a country where two million children suffer acute malnutrition, Nassima, at just 14, had managed to  beat all the local boys in an annual surf contest.

“When I surf,” Nassima told me, “I can finally just be happy and forget about all my problems on land.”

An incredibly talented filmmaker, Heather Kessinger, saw that story and we just returned to Bangladesh with cameraman Jordan Dozzi to make a documentary film about Nassima.  It’s not a fairy tale. At 16, Nassima is still struggling day-to-day to put food on the table. But even before the film is made, Nassima’s courage is spreading. Lakshmi Puri, the Deputy Executive Director of United Nations Women, gave  a speech including Nassima at the 2012 IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, saying:

“Just a year ago, more girls than boys belonged to the [Bangladesh Surf] club. But as surfing gained popularity, some community leaders felt that surfing was inappropriate for women and girls. Since then, almost every female club member has dropped. Nassima is the only one left.

Today, Nassima is an outstanding surfer and has already won several local surfing contests. If she lived here in California, she could be competitive on the amateur girls surf circuit. If her potential was discovered and nurtured, Nassima could get a chance at competing internationally. She could become Bangladesh’s first international surf star and maybe change some of the views about girls and sports.

Nassima’s example reminds us that more investments are necessary to foster women’s participation and leadership in sport. Female coaches, peer educators and sport staff offer visible proof that women and girls can excel and lead in society.”

Puri is right. We need investment in girls’ sports, and not just in Bangladesh.  In Saudi Arabia, girls are largely forbidden from playing sports, one of the reasons, according to a senior religious cleric, being that the movement might make them break their hymens and lose their virginity. Even in more liberal countries, there is stark inequality. According to a study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, more than 80% of women around the world are not doing enough physical activity to benefit their health. “Young women aged 16 – 24 are nearly half as active as their male counterparts,” the study reported, and “the statistics are even worse for low income and black and minority ethnic women.” To change the situation, we need governments, non-profits and private companies to invest in girl’s sports, especially in countries like Bangladesh. But to get that investment, we have to start by telling the stories of brave girls like Nassima. That’s why we’re making this film.

Recent brain-imagery research has shown that when we read or watch a compelling story, our brains go through a similar process to the characters in that tale.  When we read about and imagine Nassima being called a whore, when we imagine her being beaten by men who say she shouldn’t surf (which has happened), when we imagine her ignoring the taunts and heading to the trash-covered beach with her dilapidated board anyway, we actually experience the pain she goes through everyday. And her courage. And when young girls – with their incredibly plastic brains – read about or watch Nassima’s story, they will actually be practicing for confronting adversities and fears of their own, and they’ll be that much more likely to succeed in confronting those adversities, knowing they’re not alone.

Nassima is now training to be Bangladesh’s first female lifeguard, and women and girls all over the world are being equally fearless. In Saudi Arabia, an all-girls school is fighting the clerics by playing basketball. In Egypt, women are playing soccer professionally despite men saying it’s forbidden.

If you believe in the contagious nature of courage, share Nassima’s story.  And if there is a brave surf company out there looking for an athlete who could literally change the world, I’m happy to introduce you to Nassima Atker.

For more stories on fear, science, and surfing, order The Fear Project on: 

Barnes and Noble

Indiehound.org

Amazon.com




  • Sebastian

    Great story Jaimal – thanks for sharing it!

  • Sebastian

    Great story Jaimal – thanks for sharing it!

  • Sebastian

    Great story Jaimal – thanks for sharing it!

  • Sebastian

    Great story Jaimal – thanks for sharing it!

  • Sebastian

    Great story Jaimal – thanks for sharing it!

  • Tupat

    It is truly amazing what Surfing can do for us all… Surfing is Bliss…. Great story of determination and faith.

  • Kenji

    Awesome story. When does the documentary come out?

  • Kenji

    Awesome story. When does the documentary come out?

  • Kenji

    Awesome story. When does the documentary come out?

  • BH

    Great story and another great piece on women on the Inertia. Thanks 🙂

  • BH

    Great story and another great piece on women on the Inertia. Thanks 🙂

  • BH

    Great story and another great piece on women on the Inertia. Thanks 🙂

  • BH

    Great story and another great piece on women on the Inertia. Thanks 🙂

  • This story is so full of stereotypes. Surfing for girls in Bangladesh, like any other activity, be it flying or riding a bycicle, depends on a combination of what kind of a family your coming from and which part of the country. I come from the middle class, and my class position will protect me if I want to go surfing anyday I want. This girl is from the lowest rank of the soceity, which makes vulnerable. No wonder local ‘elites’ saw this as an opportunity to exercise power and/or take up a leadership position. Girls in the northern districts are generally less restricted because of the culture there. You could ride a bicycle in a small town there, but not in the Southern beach city portrayed here. And I must say a lot has changed with the growing perception of insecurty and victimization of Muslims (justified and imaginary) all over the world and the growing influence of extremists frienges.
    The attitude towards women’s sprots, again, vary widely. You have
    probably no idea the kind of support our woman’s cricket team is getting
    because they are doing well lately. The football and the hockey team isn’t that bad either. The only reason they don’t get funding is the same reason US women’s team get smaller funding than the man’s team, because sports is thought to be a man’s arena EVERYWHERE. At least we don’t have the profound abomination of cheerleaders.
    Also, thanks so much for comparing us with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, what better way to simplistically and ahistorically lump together all the Muslim countries in one group as if there is no significant distinction due to geography or cultural history.
    I’m not saying there is gender equality in my country. But I’d say the reporter needed better fieldwork and a lot less dependence on what a ‘girl from a poor, muslim country’ appears to him due to pre-conceived notions.
    Thanks I guess for featuring Bangladesh in your website in any way.

    • BH

      So then, she is fighting religious discrimination (because
      she is a woman who surfs), discrimination against surfing itself (because it’s
      not hockey or cricket) AND class discrimination (because she wasn’t born into
      the middle- or upper-class)?

      I mean, wow that makes her even more courageous.

      And I’d sooner suffer the existence of the “profound
      abomination of cheerleaders” than lose the freedom to do what I like despite my
      gender or class(what class?).

    • BH

      So then, she is fighting religious discrimination (because
      she is a woman who surfs), discrimination against surfing itself (because it’s
      not hockey or cricket) AND class discrimination (because she wasn’t born into
      the middle- or upper-class)?

      I mean, wow that makes her even more courageous.

      And I’d sooner suffer the existence of the “profound
      abomination of cheerleaders” than lose the freedom to do what I like despite my
      gender or class(what class?).

    • BH

      So then, she is fighting religious discrimination (because
      she is a woman who surfs), discrimination against surfing itself (because it’s
      not hockey or cricket) AND class discrimination (because she wasn’t born into
      the middle- or upper-class)?

      I mean, wow that makes her even more courageous.

      And I’d sooner suffer the existence of the “profound
      abomination of cheerleaders” than lose the freedom to do what I like despite my
      gender or class(what class?).

    • BH

      So then, she is fighting religious discrimination (because
      she is a woman who surfs), discrimination against surfing itself (because it’s
      not hockey or cricket) AND class discrimination (because she wasn’t born into
      the middle- or upper-class)?

      I mean, wow that makes her even more courageous.

      And I’d sooner suffer the existence of the “profound
      abomination of cheerleaders” than lose the freedom to do what I like despite my
      gender or class(what class?).

      • Obviously you didn’t get my point, because there’s no debate on whether or not she’s courageous. I’ve been proud of these surfers ever since they were covered in our national media. Of course I think what she’s been doing is awesome.
        The point is this: I am getting sick and tired of how international (western, let’s be honest) can’t bother to go beyond the simplistic notions they have of others. It’s a little bit more complex than that. (for example, you can’t just read what I wrote and decide, oh, there’s discrimination against surfing as opposed to hockey inbangladesh!)
        I actually explained why the scenario is not as conveniently unidimensional. I didn’t even bring in history. It may not be as easy to wrap your head around as this article, but you can try.
        so please read again?

      • Obviously you didn’t get my point, because there’s no debate on whether or not she’s courageous. I’ve been proud of these surfers ever since they were covered in our national media. Of course I think what she’s been doing is awesome.
        The point is this: I am getting sick and tired of how international (western, let’s be honest) can’t bother to go beyond the simplistic notions they have of others. It’s a little bit more complex than that. (for example, you can’t just read what I wrote and decide, oh, there’s discrimination against surfing as opposed to hockey inbangladesh!)
        I actually explained why the scenario is not as conveniently unidimensional. I didn’t even bring in history. It may not be as easy to wrap your head around as this article, but you can try.
        so please read again?

      • Obviously you didn’t get my point, because there’s no debate on whether or not she’s courageous. I’ve been proud of these surfers ever since they were covered in our national media. Of course I think what she’s been doing is awesome.
        The point is this: I am getting sick and tired of how international (western, let’s be honest) can’t bother to go beyond the simplistic notions they have of others. It’s a little bit more complex than that. (for example, you can’t just read what I wrote and decide, oh, there’s discrimination against surfing as opposed to hockey inbangladesh!)
        I actually explained why the scenario is not as conveniently unidimensional. I didn’t even bring in history. It may not be as easy to wrap your head around as this article, but you can try.
        so please read again?

      • Obviously you didn’t get my point, because there’s no debate on whether or not she’s courageous. I’ve been proud of these surfers ever since they were covered in our national media. Of course I think what she’s been doing is awesome.
        The point is this: I am getting sick and tired of how international (western, let’s be honest) can’t bother to go beyond the simplistic notions they have of others. It’s a little bit more complex than that. (for example, you can’t just read what I wrote and decide, oh, there’s discrimination against surfing as opposed to hockey inbangladesh!)
        I actually explained why the scenario is not as conveniently unidimensional. I didn’t even bring in history. It may not be as easy to wrap your head around as this article, but you can try.
        so please read again?

        • Cazart

          There are plenty of opportunities to say “Oh, those Westerners just lump us all together.” I’m not sure this is one of them, particularly when I hear you say, “Surfing for girls in Bangladesh, like any other activity, be it flying
          or riding a (sic) bycicle, depends on a combination of what kind of a family
          your coming from and which part of the country.”

          Really? You’re ok with this? Is there a special Family Checker girls should know about?

          “I come from the middle class, and my class position will protect me if I want to go surfing anyday I want.”

          How fortunate for you.

          “This girl is from the lowest rank of the soceity, which
          makes vulnerable. No wonder local ‘elites’ saw this as an opportunity to exercise power and/or take up a leadership position.”

          Again, is this ok with you? It’s not ok with the article’s author, or with the filmmaker. But somehow that’s a Horrible Western Overgeneralization?

          I think you’re reaching. I think you’re looking for a fight where there shouldn’t be one. It’s almost like you didn’t “bother to go beyond the simplistic notions you have of others.”

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