I love the way stories spread in this era. A couple of years ago, I flew to Bangladesh and reported a story for AFAR Magazine about a homeless girl, Nassima Atker, who'd miraculously become one of the country's best surfers. (Yes, there is surfing in Bangladesh.) Despite having to beg for survival, despite being constantly teased and taunted by men and women who say surfing is inappropriate for girls, despite living in a country where 2 million children suffer acute malnutrition, Nassima, at just 14, had managed to beat all the local boys in an annual surf contest.
"When I surf," Nassima told me, "I can finally just be happy and forget about all my problems on land."
An incredibly talented filmmaker, Heather Kessinger, saw that story, and we just returned to Bangladesh together to make a documentary film about Nassima.
It's not a fairy tale. At 16, Nassima is still struggling day-to-day to put food on the table. But even before the film is made, Nassima's courage is spreading. Lakshmi Puri, the deputy executive director of United Nations Women, gave a speech mentioning Nassima at the 2012 IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, saying:
"Just a year ago, more girls than boys belonged to the [Bangladesh Surf] club. But as surfing gained popularity, some community leaders felt that surfing was inappropriate for women and girls. Since then, almost every female club member has dropped. Nassima is the only one left."
Today, Nassima is an outstanding surfer and has already won several local surfing contests. If she lived in California, she could be competitive on the amateur girls surf circuit. If her potential was discovered and nurtured, Nassima could get a chance at competing internationally. She could become Bangladesh's first international surf star and maybe change some of the views about girls and sports.
Nassima's example reminds us that more investments are necessary to foster women's participation and leadership in sport. Female coaches, peer educators and sport staff offer visible proof that women and girls can excel and lead in society."
Puri is right. We need investment in girls' sports, and not just in Bangladesh. In Saudi Arabia, girls are largely forbidden from playing sports, one of the reasons, according to a senior religious cleric, being that the movement might make them break their hymens and lose their virginity. Even in more liberal countries, there is stark inequality. According to a study by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, more than 80 percent of women around the world are not doing enough physical activity to benefit their health. "Young women aged 16-24 are nearly half as active as their male counterparts," the study reported, and "the statistics are even worse for low income and black and minority ethnic women." To change the situation, we need governments, nonprofits and private companies to invest in girls' sports, especially in countries like Bangladesh -- but we will only get that investment if we tell the stories of brave girls like Nassima. That's why we're making this film.
Recent brain-imagery research has shown that when we read or watch a compelling story, our brains go through a similar process to the characters in that tale. When we read about and imagine Nassima being called a whore, when we imagine her being beaten by men who say she shouldn't surf (which has happened), when we imagine her ignoring the taunts and heading to the trash-covered beach with her dilapidated board anyway, we actually experience the pain she goes through every day. And her courage. And when young girls -- with their incredibly plastic brains -- read about or watch Nassima's story, they will actually be practicing for confronting adversities and fears of their own, and they'll be that much more likely to succeed in confronting those adversities, knowing they're not alone.
Nassima is now training to be Bangladesh's first female lifeguard, and women and girls all over the world are being equally fearless. In Saudi Arabia, an all-girls school is fighting the clerics by playing basketball, according to Reuters. In Egypt, women are playing soccer professionally despite men saying it's forbidden.
If you believe in the contagious nature of courage, share Nassima's story. And if there is a brave surf company out there looking for an athlete who could literally change the world, I'm happy to introduce you to Nassima Atker.
For more stories on fear, science, and surfing, order The Fear Project.
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