The Most Fearless: Nasima Akter is pioneering women's surfing in Bangladesh

Posted by Rhea Cortado on


The Most Fearless: Nasima Akter. Photo by Kamrul Hasan.

A teenage girl learning how to surf doesn’t turn heads around most coastal towns in first world countries, but in Bangladesh (a Muslim country that borders India), 18-year-old local surfer Nasima Akter is the subject of stares and neighborhood gossip.

It’s hard to imagine growing up without the freedom to surf in beautiful places and dream what we want to be when we grow up, which is why Nasima’s story as a pioneering female surfer in Bangladesh  immediately grabbed us the same way it did documentary filmmaker Heather Kessinger. “I was hooked early on with the idea of Nasima pushing through these challenges,” says Heather, who (along with GoodPeople) introduced us to Nasima's story. “She’s gone through incredible changes in her life. It’s not as simple as one girl overcoming great odds to becoming a great surfer.”

Heather happened upon Nasima’s story buried in a few sentences of an Afar travel magazine article in 2009 by Jaimal Yogis about surfing in Bangladesh. Her documentary filmmaker light bulb lit up, leading her to track down Nasima in Bangladesh with a film crew (just in case) to investigate the story.

Nasima in traditional attire. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.

“It was clear pretty quickly that we should start filming,” Heather says of her initial encounters with Nasima more than two years ago. Since that first trip to Bangladesh, the San Francisco-based filmmaker and the cinematographer, Jordan Dozzi have spent months at a time filming with the community in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The working title of Nasima’s story is called The Most Fearless (check out the trailer below) and has already been getting attention and an online following.


The Most Fearless (short trailer) from Heather Kessinger on Vimeo.

Between making a rough cut of the documentary film and entering festival screenings, we caught up with Heather back home in the Bay Area to learn about the culture and socioeconomic landscape of Bangladesh and how Nasima’s story fits within it.

A few days later, we got to speak with Nasima directly via Skype for a brief time in between dinner and a sketchy Internet connection.

Cityscape of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.
A few of the Cox's Bazar Surf & Lifesaving Club members. Lifeguarding is a relatively new job opportunity for surfers in Bangladesh. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 

What is the culture of Bangladesh like? 

Heather Kessinger: Bangladesh is a Muslim country that practices Islam. It’s a fairly moderate country. Cox’s Bazar [where Nasima lives] is more conservative than the country as a whole. Young girls can play in the water, wear short sleeves but they don’t usually wear short pants. When a girl gets to be 12 to 14-years-old, she’s expected to keep her arms and legs covered. These girls and Nasima surfed in balloon-y Indian pants and a cotton knee length tunic and scarf. Now with the products from Seea, she has full sleeved rashguard and they are not super tight. She is getting away with that — for now.

Nearby Cox’s Bazar is St. Martin’s Island, a coral island with fun surf breaks that’s accessible by a ferry ride. Here, a view from exiting off the ferry to St. Martin’s Island. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 
The beach at St. Martin’s Island at dusk. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.
Nasima at the beach. Photo by Kamrul Hasan.

What does the beach of Cox’s Bazar look like?

It’s something like 80 miles long and is claimed to be the world's longest beach. It’s insanely beautiful and often where we are is a long sloping shallow break. There’s one main river and all these tributaries with sand shifting. The water is a crazy color, like chai. In Cox’s Bazar, there are two or three beaches that are popular for surfing. You get in a tuk tuk, ride for fifteen minutes and go where no one has surfed before.

What is life like for a typical Bangladesh girl around Nasima’s age? 
Girls get married very young. [Nasima] was 16-years-old when we met her. She had just gotten married. That was considered late. In this case, it was her choice. Nasima is more mature than the typical 18-year-old here in the West. Her childhood was not a childhood that we would recognize. She had to figure out how to work, how to feed herself. But at the end of the day, teenage girls are teenage girls. So much of who she is similar to young people here.

Nasima at home. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.

What was the journey that you saw Nasima go through in her personal life while filming? 

She was in and out of bad and abusive marriage. At any moment, she might be working really hard to assert her independence and in another moment, she’s a teenage girl who fell for the wrong guy. What has been really amazing on the last production trip is we were able to bring in Seea as part of the story, and Good People arranged for a custom surfboard to be shaped for her. I think bringing in a real sponsor, validation from the outside, she’s grabbed onto the idea of her responsibility to surfing. These validating things are tangible for her.

On the street in Bangladesh. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 
Cinematographer of The Most Fearless, Jordan Dozzi at work in Bangladesh. 

What is the economy in Bangladesh? 

So many young kids, boys and girls are in extreme poverty. They often can’t even go to school. They work any way they can. Before Nasima got married, she sold trinkets on the beach or collected recycling. Young boys and girls are expected to bring money into the household. It's a luxury to able to attend school as a child for the poorer families.

What are the options for young women growing up in Bangladesh?

To get married, take care of your husband, have lots of children and take care of the home. I’ve met plenty of women who did go to school, but young girls who are born into poverty — there aren’t options. Can one girl raise herself out of poverty through surfing? Nasima has shown that she can, bur for most the answer is no, and their lives are incredibly hard.

Dropping in at the beach. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 
One of the boys in Bangladesh. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.

What’s the history of surfing in Bangladesh?

Surfing is barely ten-years-old in Bangladesh. There is no history of going into the water for enjoyment. As Bangladesh is nearly 50% water by area, water has always been about work (fishing) or threatening (monsoons, shifting ocean levels). Bangladeshi's are only just beginning to discover their coastline.

Though in the last couple of years there has been more press about surfing (we even collaborated with a local Al Jazeera reporter to do a news feature on Nasima) and advertisers have also started promoting the luxury of 'beach life.'  Grameen Bank in Bangladesh had a whole campaign that featured surfers enjoying the waves and beaches.

Inside a lifesaving instruction class led by Shahadat Hosen.  Photo by Jordan Dozzi.
One of the locals, Kamrul Hasan, now making surf fins. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.

How could girls or boys make money from surfing?

There are tourists coming there from within Bangladesh who have money, are from the capital and starting to vacation there. They are discovering their beaches. There is a handful coming from India and Southeast Asia. There are a few Western tourists.

Tourists are coming to the beach looking for surf lessons. To work as a lifeguard is a very new option for strong, talented surfers. Nasima was the first girl to be trained as a lifeguard in the country. Just going in the water is so new to Bangladesh; 18,000 people, mostly kids, drown in Bangladesh every year, making it imperative that lifeguarding come to the beaches. Because the numbers of drownings in the country is considered epidemic, RNLI (Royal Navy Lifeboat Institution  out of the UK) has trained the first lifeguards ever in Bangladesh. Now Bangladesh has world class lifeguards patrolling their main surf beach.

Nasima surfing in cotton pants and shirt before she had any other surf gear. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.

What is it about surfing that has the power to make a change? 

My hope for Nasima is that people could see what she has done – what she is doing, and see that same potential in themselves, “If she can do this, then I can do this too. I should be able to do XYZ.”

Just before leaving for our last production trip I got an email from Rashed Alam, the leader of the surf club and he said “We've been teaching some of the young girls working on the beach to surf and I'd like to be able to give them something. Would you be able to bring a few clothing donations for them?” I don't think that he realized what he said in that simple message.

Two years ago there were no young girls surfing, or it was only a fleeting interest because there was a film crew there.  What he was telling me was that something in the community had shifted. The young girls he was teaching actively wanted to surf and get into the water —because of the surfing. These young girls took it upon themselves and had the initiative. We witnessed this shift. It’s pretty amazing. We plan include these young girls in the film. They are the embodiment of hope and change. It’s true, young girls and kids anywhere will see they are having a blast. They are not great surfers yet — but they will be! It's an incredible evolution from just two years ago when Nasima was the only girl surfing. And you should see them on skateboards!

Little rippers. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 

What were your expectations when you started filming and what did you discover as you explored deeper into the story? 

For me going into the story, I just expected that the biggest challenge would be coming from the religion or pressures of culture. I was wrong. So much of the pressure is economic and about basic survival within the context of their culture.

If Nasima can figure out a way to take care of herself, feed herself and have control of her life economically, I think things will start to shift. Girl or boy, if someone is an amazing surfer and there is an avenue for them to be able to bring income in — the women and girls are very powerless in that place.

Amina, another girl who has taken up surfing in Bangladesh. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.


What are Nasima’s goals and aspirations in life?

So many girls and women are completely unfamiliar of the concept of their own aspirations. On the first production trip I remember trying to have a conversation with a mother to ask permission to see if her daughter can come surfing with us. The mother sat far behind her husband. At each question only the father would answer. Even the man that was our translator that day would not ask the mother what she thought. I finally stopped the interview and insisted that our translator ask the mother so that there would me no mistake that I was asking for her opinion.

The mother quite literally did not know what to say. Even with the incredible language barrier I had the distinct sense that she wanted to answer, but that no one had asked her for her opinion — ever. And she didn't know how to give it. This was heartbreaking in the moment because I could only think about what future these amazing young girls were facing.

Nasima is the exception. Nasima is a fire pistol. She started surfing with no expectations. She did it because she felt free when she was doing it, she will say 'I forget all my trouble when I surf'. She does dream, she would love to travel and surf around the world.

Meet Nasima. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 

A few days later, we got to Skype with Nasima for a brief time in between dinner time!

Hi Nasima! Did you surf today?

Nasima Akter: No, I am not surfing today because I am not feeling good.

Sorry to hear that. What about your friends? How many girls do you usually go surfing with?

[There are seven girls] that are 9 to 12-years-old. Before there are many surfer [girls] but they are married now so not possible to come surfing — now only small girls.

Why don’t more of the older girls try surfing, like you?

Because their husband don’t like surfing. They say, “Bengali girls are not supposed to be surfing. You are my wife. You are not going surfing. It’s not good.” That's why. Also my husband told me before, “Hey Nasima. It’s not good that you go surfing. People are talking bad things.” I tell him, “I like surfing. I want to go and surf. I said, “I am not listening to people.”

My husband is like this. He’s so crazy. He doesn’t like surfing. He doesn’t like that I go outside and be with my friends. He don’t like this. That’s why maybe I want to divorce my husband.

Nasima receives a disapproving look. Photo by Jordan Dozzi.

Why doesn’t that stop you from surfing?

My husband says, “I’m married to you. You stay at home and don’t go any place. Don’t not go meet any of your family. Don’t go meet any of your friends.” I don’t know why. At the time he was my boyfriend, he tells me, “Oh you go surfing? No problem. You go meet your friends, no problem.” But after married, he changed his mind. I don't like this. I want to make happy for my life.

Nasima dancing with friends. Photo by Jordan Dozzi. 

What are your dreams for the future?

I want to participate in different competitions and I want to train young girls who are interested in surfing. I want to make them like me. Before I started surfing, I was working on the beach to sell the things and other ornaments made out of shells, which comes from the sea. But when I see some people surfing, I think it will really feel good and why don’t I try and be a surfer like them.

Within in a short time, I feel like I will compete with the boys. Within a short time, I will be at their level. I am very hopeful of this. It’s my dream to be a good surfer. Thank you for you Seea for sponsoring me. I’m so happy.

Thank you Nasima for being an inspiration! We are so happy to be a part of your surfing dreams in Bangladesh! 

Nasima at sunset. Photo by Kamrul Hasan. 

Read more about the connection between surfing and tourism in: How to be a Responsible Tourist with Groundswell Travel
Take a trip to Thailand and discover how Chrystal Dawn Fitzgerald travels with a purpose for helping the local community in: The Land Of.



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