Sisterhood Blog

Gaza's Surfer Girls

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Rawan Abo Ghanem on her surfboard.

In Gaza, where it is illegal under Sharia law for women even to ride bicycles, four young girls are boldly learning to surf. With the help of the American non-profit organization, Explore Corps, they are riding the waves and gaining a measure of freedom, confidence and independence.

This past summer, Rawan Abo Ghanem, 12, and her sister Kholoud, 10, together with their cousins Shorouq, 12, and Sabah, 10, mastered the basics of surfing under the tutelage of Matthew Olsen, executive director of Explore Corps. The organization, which brings together educators, expeditionary leaders, international development and political consultants to promote outdoor education programs, was founded in 2007. According to Olsen, the non-profit runs primarily on volunteer power, and its tiny budget is covered by private donors from the United States and Europe.

Explore Corps, together with the Surfing 4 Peace initiative started by Jewish surfing legend Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, Israeli surfing industry professional Arthur Rashkovan, Doc’s son David Paskowitz and surfing champion Kelly Slater, has been supporting and equipping the fledgling Gaza Surf Club. It was only last August, post-Flotilla incident, that most of the surfing equipment was allowed into Gaza by the Israeli authorities.

Olsen, who has lived off and on in Israel and Gaza since the 1990s, and has worked behind the scenes on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the Economic Cooperation Foundation, explained how much more difficult it is to empower the girls through surfing. He cited how unique it was for the Abo Ghanem girls to have been taken out into the water and taught to swim by their fathers. “They are in the water as much as the guys, which is very unusual in Gaza,” he said. It was not surprising then, to learn that their fathers and brothers are all lifeguards, and that they used to be fishermen before the fishing trade collapsed with the rise of Hamas to power.

Despite Olsen’s having heard about Rawan, Kholoud, Shorouq and Sabah for a couple of years, it was only last summer that they were allowed to meet with him. “It was really problematic for a man — especially a foreign one — to meet the girls and coach them,” Olsen recalled. “The girls were nervous about making spectacles of themselves, so we held our surfing lessons early in the morning when the beach was basically empty.”

The girls’ fathers and brothers were in the water with them, and Olsen took cues from the parents. “I’m delighted to help these girls, but you need to be culturally sensitive,” he emphasized.

He wonders what will happen once Rawan and Shorouq soon become teenagers. “Your life in Gaza changes drastically after you turn 13,” the coach pointed out. He’s not sure whether the girls will continue to surf, whether they will be willing or able to take the cultural risks.

For his part, Olsen would be thrilled if the girls would continue to surf. He says he would be willing to speak to the Gazan government on their behalf and impress upon it how letting the girls surf would help Hamas show open-mindedness, project capability and perhaps gain a measure of legitimacy. The only glitch in this plan is the fact that it is illegal for an American citizen to engage in any way with Hamas — even if it is just to give it some advice.

In the meantime, Olsen is keeping his hopes up that the girls will somehow continue to surf. In fact, he’s counting so much on their love of the sport that he has engaged a team of clothing designers in New York to create a special Islamic-appropriate swimwear, or “burquinis,” that can be manufactured in Gaza. The idea is to come up with something that covers the entire body but is not form fitting.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Surfing, Gaza, Matthew Olsen, Explore Corps, Abo Ghanem

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.