Across the Middle East and North Africa, most sports are heavily male-dominated. And even more so in Iran, where no women’s sport has ever broadcast on television. It was only this past May that President Hassan Rohani called for an end for the nation’s stadium ban for women, so all things considered, the rise of a young female athlete, is pretty rare. But despite conservative tradition, Shahla Yasini has done exactly that.
Perched on the Gulf of Oman, in the rural village of Ramin, Yasini not only became the first Iranian woman to surf in her native country, but is also pioneering the village’s burgeoning surf scene. Her ambition captured the attention of many, and today, the young surfer is the subject of Italian photographer Giulia Frigieri’s latest series, entitled Surfing Iran.
The 28-year-old photographer first heard of the scene through Easkey Britton’s “Waves Of Freedom” project, where the Irish competitive surfer set up the nation’s first surf club. After a trip to Iran in 2014, Frigieri was on a mission to fight misconceptions of the Middle Eastern country. “I discovered a country that was totally different from how it was portrayed in media” she says.
Since then, the Iranian surf scene has continued to grow, and Frigieri has watched closely. “I wondered how the scene would evolve and if I’d ever had the chance to go and see it myself” she says. Eventually—in millennial fashion—the photographer met Yasini on Instagram, and the rest is history.
After a few email exchanges, Frigieri finally made her way back to Iran. “I remember meeting her in a taxi in Chabahar on the way to Ramin at night,” she says, describing their first encounter. “At some point she offered me a cigarette. I was convinced it didn’t look good for a woman to smoke in a public place, and she started laughing at my clumsy comment”.
Yasini’s brave spirit continued to show throughout Frigieri’s trip. According to her, surfing in Iran is no easy feat. Aside from the lack of sportswear that adheres to Iran’s dress code, the region of Baluchistan (where Ramin is located) makes playing the sport all the more difficult. The region is one of Iran’s most conservative, and women chiefly work inside their households. “The only women I met surfing there other then Shahla are from the upper middle classes of Tehran “, Frigieri explains.
And photographing in Ramin came with its own set of obstacles. “Anything I planned seemed impossible,” she adds. But Shahla’s presence proved to be crucial. The young surfer also gave Frigieri access. “People in Ramin didn’t know who I was, or if they could trust me”, she says before adding, “having Shahla there with me was essential”.
Thanks to Shahla, Frigieri was able to capture her stunning series, featuring Yasini and the many others who have joined the region’s growing surfing movement—paving the way for a new, less patriarchal Iran.