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Making Waves With the Bangladeshi Surf Girls

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Aisha and Johanara, both ten, surf in Cox's Bazar.

On a stretch of beach in a Bangladeshi tourist town called Cox’s Bazar, an amazing thing is happening: Eight young girls are learning to surf.

Early each morning, rain or shine, these girls leave their homes in traditional villages and make their way to the beach, where they work selling jewelry, chips, and eggs until late into the night. Their families depend on their income to survive.

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Mayasha, 12, and Nargis, 13, sell jewelry on the beach in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

For most Bangladeshi girls, this would be their sole activity until they marry—usually before the age of 18—and assume a traditional housewife or domestic role. But for the past year and a half these eight girls have been learning to surf, skateboard, and dream—thanks to the efforts of surfer and lifeguard Rashed Alam, his American wife, Venessa Rude, and the Cox’s Bazar Lifesaving and Surf Club.

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Johanara, ten, surfs during a break from selling chips in Cox’s Bazar.
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Shobe Majaraz, 12, hugs Suma, 12, on the beach.

Photographer Allison Joyce first learned of these eight “outgoing and spunky” girls, ages 10 to 13, while shooting an assignment on the Surf Club for Getty Images in 2013. She then returned multiple times over the next few years to document them as they learned to surf—which she says is a highly unusual activity in the conservative Muslim country.

“It’s rare to see spirited, vivacious girls in Bangladesh,” says Joyce. “But you see it when they get up on the surfboard and when they are skating—their day-to-day life breaks the traditional roles of what women are supposed to do in Bangladesh.”

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Suma, Johanara, and Shobe Majaraz walk through a market on the beach.
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Aisha laughs as Sumi, 11, rinses off in the shower after surfing.

While there are other girls who work the beach in Cox’s Bazar, Joyce says these eight had the good fortune of working the stretch close to the Surf Club, where Alam took note of them and then took them under his wing. Rude tutors them in English six days a week. Alam trains them and hopes to get them jobs as lifeguards when they turn 16. They would be the first female lifeguards on the beach.

Joyce says this nurturing has allowed them to dream of a life beyond their traditional views of the world.

“They have dreams now, and normally girls there don’t have these kind of dreams,” says Joyce. “They say, ‘I want to be a lifeguard,’ or ‘I want to be a professional surfer.’ Sumi wants to be a doctor.”

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Johanara stokes a cooking fire at her home in Bangladesh.
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Rashed Alam, the leader of the Cox’s Bazar Surf Club, watches as his wife, Venessa Rude, tutors the surf girls in a park near the beach.

Along with documenting them on the beach, Joyce went with some girls to their homes, most of which had no running water or electricity. While the trek to and from the beach each day can be long and treacherous, Joyce says the penalties for not working can be harsh—one girl got beaten by her family for not making enough money, even when the roads were closed due to political strikes.

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Sumi, who is the only girl able to go to a formal school, does her homework on her bed.
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Johanara walks on the beach with her surfboard.

For Joyce, who says most of her photography work focuses on human rights issues such as child marriage, human trafficking, and prostitution, this story has become a “ray of light.” The girls’ passion and drive inspired her so much that she started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to raise enough money for them to have safe transportation to the beach and a healthy meal each day.

“I don’t think this story will ever be over for me. I want to keep going back,” she says. “I hope [the girls] don’t get sucked back into traditional roles. Their life actually can change from this.”

Allison Joyce is a Boston-born photojournalist based between Mumbai, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the age of 19 she left New York’s Pratt Institute and moved to Iowa to cover the 2008 presidential race, working as a campaign photographer for Hillary Clinton. The experience inspired her travels around the world covering social issues and news.

See more images from her Bangladeshi Surf Girls project on her website, visit her GoFundMe campaign to help the girls, and follow her on Instagram.

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