Making waves: How one surfer coaxed the women of Sri Lanka into the water

In the island's surfing hot spots, a quiet gender revolution is under way

Californian Tiffany Carothers, far right, has encouraged Sri Lankan women to take up the sports. Courtesy Tiffany Carothers
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For Tiffany Carothers, it started with a simple idea. She wanted more ladies in the line-up. The California native had moved to Sri Lanka in 2011 with her family, drawn by the quiet life of Arugam Bay and beautiful waves of Main Point. She noticed that there weren't any Sri Lankan women in the water, so she started asking her neighbours, Shamali and Inoka Sanjaya, to head into the Indian Ocean with her.

"She would take me to secret places," Shamali, 31, remembers. "My brother didn't like that I was surfing. He would say: 'Why are you going surfing? No other girls are surfing. Other girls stay home. Why are you acting like a boy?'

"Our culture is very different from European culture," Shamali adds. Her brother objected to her being the only local girl in the water, as he worried about what others would say. They had lost their parents at a young age and he was responsible for looking after his younger siblings. He was also concerned that she wasn't a strong swimmer, as is the case with many Sri Lankan women.

Eventually, Carothers gave her neighbours some extra boards. And then, with Shamali's help, she organised a female-only surfing meetup for the larger local community. She was shocked when 30 women showed up.

Drone images of Weligama beach in southern Sri Lanka
Weligama beach in southern Sri Lanka is a popular spot of surfers. Getty Images

“I wasn’t even sure how the first Girls Make Waves would go,” says Carothers, who has since opened chapters in Hawaii and Mauritius. The aim is to teach basic ocean skills and promote a love of surfing. In A-Bay, the nickname for Arugam Bay, they hold surf events every Monday.

In 2018, Shamali started her own initiative: Arugam Bay Girls' Surf Club. The pair's collective efforts have been profiled in Surfer magazine and broadcast around the world. "Any problem we have in our life, when we go into the water, we forget," Shamali says. "A new happiness comes."

But things weren't always straightforward for these erstwhile surfers. Although it became easier for Shamali to surf when she married a local man who supported her love of the sport, there was still a stigma associated with surfing for local women. There is the perception among many local villagers that all western women surf in small bikinis and spend their nights drinking and going to parties, says Shamali, who thinks people in her community associated the sport with those other activities.

A month after their weekly surf meets began, the women started to be harassed by some men in their community. And so for the next 18 months, they would co-ordinate secret surf meetups – at different breaks or by going on trips to the south where people wouldn't recognise them.

"When it was scary and we did have to hide, [surfing coach] Tim Jones with the International Surfing Association and Red Bull were encouraging me," Carothers says. "They were a huge inspiration to me. They are the big guys in surfing." With time, the surrounding community began to accept the women's love of the sport. "We keep our culture … We are not going to party or wear a bikini," Shamali says, pointing out that the women "wear nice clothes" when they surf – generally leggings and shirts.

Carothers says: "It's so much more freeing now to know that the ones who were threatening and against it are now organising training so the girls can use surfing to work within the economy."  

On the other side of Sri Lanka, one south coast surfer is fostering a similar future for his daughter. Surf guide and guesthouse proprietor Lucky Laksiri first started surfing the well-known Coconuts break decades ago on his own board, made from wood, fishing line and a bucket. The now crowded line-up was considered a secret spot then.

And so, when his daughter Hiruni, then 12, came to him asking for surf training, he couldn't have been happier. "She's the first local girl in the water," Laksiri says. "It's good for her."

Hiruni always loved the water and grew up 50 metres from one of the best breaks on Sri Lanka's southern coast. Although the waves made her nervous, she knew her dad would be the best coach – he'd been taking her into the ocean since she was a small child.

I first meet Hiruni after an evening session in the water, carrying my board under my arm. She comes up to tell me that she was once the only girl surfer in Sri Lanka. When I ask if she wants to go to the Olympics, she answers with a resounding ‘yes’.

Hiruni practises every week with her dad, heading a few kilometres south to the beginner-friendly beach break in Weligama. She says some of her girl friends are interested but, for now, her dad is her biggest ally.

Sri Lanka's female surfers typically wear leggings and a shirt when they take to the waves. Courtesy Tiffany Carothers
Sri Lanka's female surfers typically wear leggings and a shirt when they take to the waves. Courtesy Tiffany Carothers

If you look out at the popular breaks on the south coast and in A-Bay during the surf season, you'll see huge crowds of beginner surfers bobbing around on neon-blue and yellow foam boards, with a local guy often wearing a bucket hat encouraging them behind the break. But there are no female teachers. Some Sri Lankans see this as a business opportunity.

"No woman gives lessons. I would like to see that," Laksiri says. "It would be better for business." Although he's been teaching surfing for decades, he believes more tourists would be interested in surfing if they could find female instructors.

On the west coast, Sanjaya similarly hopes that the Arugam Bay Girls' Surf Club can become an economic hub. "Some girls in our club say that they don't have a good job or good money."

She is working with Australian Aid to fund International Surf Association training. As well as lessons, she hopes the club will also direct tourists to other local women who offer massages, cookery classes or laundry services.

"Before, women stayed at home working or taking care of kids," Sanjaya says. "Now, we're given time for our surfing also … they like this change."