The Bangladeshi Surf Star Defying Cultural Taboos

Sara Bliss
Senior Writer

18-year-old Bangladeshi surf star Nasima Akter, star of the upcoming documentary, ‘The Most Fearless.’ (Photo: Jordan Dozzi/PhotoSF)

It takes guts to be a pioneer, especially when everyone around you disapproves of your passion. That’s the case for 18-year-old Bangladeshi surf star Nasima Akter. Despite the conservative country’s cultural taboos frowning upon women swimming, Akter not only took on the waves, but has beaten the boys in local surf competitions. Akter is now the star of filmmaker Heather Kessinger’s upcoming documentary The Most Fearless chronicling three years of Akter’s struggle to keep doing what she loves, despite judgment, name-calling, and her husband’s insistence that she not surf.

18-year-old Bangladeshi surf star Nasima Akter has inspired other young girls to take up surfing. (Photo: Venessa Rude)

Kessinger discovered Akter when she read an article about the local surf club, which mentioned one girl who kept surfing while all the other girls dropped out. “I knew there had to be something there very strong in her character for that to have happened,” explains Kessinger. The filmmaker has spent the past three years capturing Akter’s journey in her documentary. “Nasima is a star. She has come from nothing and she has figured out how to do as well as she can. She has a light about her that is amazing.”

Nasima Akter has won local championships in Bangladesh despite the cultural taboo against women swimming much less surfing (Photo: Jordan Dozzi/PhotoSF)

Akter who has been in and out of homelessness, and estranged from her own family since the age of seven, discovered surfing while working on the beach in the town of Cox Bazar.  When she was in her early teens, she convinced one of the young surfers to teach her the sport. When a group of kids formed a local surf club, Akter was one of a handful of girls who joined. But after the girls faced disapproval (they were called whores for going in the water) Akter was the only one who remained. Because Akter was separated from her family, she didn’t have the same pressures as girls who wanted to surf but were forbidden by their parents. “She had nothing to lose,” states Kessinger.

Akter developed a deep passion for the sport quickly. “When I asked her why she surfs she says, ‘When I’m out there I don’t think of anything else,’” states Kessinger. “Nasima loves the sense of being out in the ocean, free of all of the judgments or thinking about whether or not she is hungry. She leaves all that on shore.”

Nasima Akter following her passion and surfing. (Photo: Jordan Dozzi/PhotoSF)

Kessinger has witnessed several major changes since she began her project. Not only are lifeguards being trained for the first time ever in Bangladesh, but a new generation of young girls are taking up surfing. “These 8-year-old girls took it upon themselves to learn to surf,” says Kessinger. “Nasima broke barriers for these girls, without her experience it wouldn’t have happened. They are the inheritors of her passion and drive.”

While Akter’s story is inspiring, however it’s also complicated. This isn’t a simple girl-takes-on-world tale with a happy ending, which is one of the reasons it is so compelling. Akter married at 16 and her husband and his family have forbidden her from surfing. “Initially her expectation was that if he’s a good man he should understand her dream. That was her hope but it didn’t turn out to be true,” explains Kessinger. “Nasima tries very hard to do the things that are expected of her, but when they have a fight or she just gets to the end of her rope with him she will reconnect with her surfing community.” However, over the years those breaks are frequent, but just that, breaks. “She eventually goes back to her husband, so right now she is not surfing,” Kessinger reveals.

18-year-old Bangladeshi surf star Nasima Akter takes on the waves (Photo: Jordan Dozzi/PhotoSF)

That push and pull is part of what makes Akter’s story a larger one incorporating religion, culture, passion, and expectations. “It’s not the nutshell hero story because that’s not true and that’s not life,” says Kessinger.  “The truth is Nasima does go back and forth and has even dressed in a full burka when she’s not surfing.” However, Kessinger believes this push and pull that Akter feels between the ocean and traditional values, is an ongoing one, that hasn’t resolved itself yet. “Nasima such a strong person and the potential is always there. It’s up to her which part of her future she grabs onto.”

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