Sabah Abu Ghanim was five years old when her father taught her how to surf. Now, at 17, she is quitting under pressure from her parents.
Sabah lives in Gaza, a place known better for a long mired history as a conflict zone than it’s quality surf. Still, a new documentary that’s making the rounds at international film festivals, called Gaza Surf Club, depicts how, in the midst of living in a conflict zone, a handful of dedicated surfers have found an escape and an outlet in the waves. Sabah is one of the surfers heavily featured in the film.
Her story is unique. Most surfers in Gaza are men. But now that she’s finished high school, and plans to marry soon, Sabah is being encouraged by her parents to give it up.
“We’re religious Muslims,” Sabah’s mother Sabrine told NPR. “Sabah’s future is up to her future husband.”
It’s true that Palestinian women tend to have more opportunities than in other countries in the Middle East. They can own businesses, play sports, etc. And yet there are still customs that simply don’t compute when approached from a western worldview.
Sabah’s father, Rajad Abu Ghanim, explains that what was a fine outlet for a young girl is no longer in the cards for an adult woman. “When girls are young, nobody objects. In fact, I taught them to surf,” he said. “But as Sabah matures, it’s just no longer appropriate.”
Matthew Olsen of Surfing 4 Peace says Sabah is one of four girls S4P has been supporting since 2010. “I was teaching their brothers to surf in 2008 and their fathers (who are brothers) approached me about working with their daughters,” he said. “I told them I would be happy to include the girls, and I repeated this whenever I would see them. But even with them approaching me, it was still two years until I actually met the girls and got to go in the water with them. It just goes to show you that even if the fathers want their girls to participate, there is so much caution related to girls in sports in Gaza that for two years their caution outweighed their enthusiasm.”
Unfortunately, Olsen says, Sabah is likely the last one of the four girls to stop surfing. Her older sister, Shorouk, stopped after getting married about three years ago – at the age of 18 – and had a child shortly after. Sabah’s future will likely parallel that of her sister, as her parents have arranged a marriage for her, and she will soon live with her in-laws further inland.
“I wish I could go back to being a child,” she told NPR. “That’s when I felt most free — surfing.” She dreams of teaching other girls to surf, and to enjoy the ocean like she does. Unfortunately for Sabah, a surfing future seems unlikely.