'MY NICKNAME IN THE WATER WAS MUHAMMAD' - MERYEM EL GARDOUM
Meet Moroccan Surfer Meryem el Gardoum.
In order to showcase and support the diversity of surfing, WMNSurfMag has been working on a portrait series, where we will introduce to you not only fierce females who fight for their rights to surf but also surfers around the world, who portray what we also stand for:
SURFING IS FOR EVERYONE!
In this piece, you will meet Moroccan Surfergirl Meryem El Gardoum, learn about her fight to be accepted in the water as a woman, how she has transcended cultural and religious boundaries in her surfing career and what she hopes for female surfers of the future.
Meryem El Gardoum is a 4-times Moroccan Women’s National Champion.
She grew up on the coast of Tamraght and learned how to surf when she was 11 years old. I could hear the captivation in her voice as she described to me what it felt like to stand up on a wave for the first time. “Woah, I want to do it again, again, again”, she said to herself after the ride.
The 23-year-old is a true free-spirit. She loves the freedom of surfing and cannot imagine her life without it. However, “You don’t belong here” is a phrase that Meryem hears like a broken record when she is chasing swells. Meryem’s fondness of the sea is what eventually introduced her to a surfboard. She would play on the shore, swim with her friends and then started to swim farther out into the ocean. She first rode whitewater on a bodyboard with her friends for fun but one day a male friend told Meryem she should try his surfboard. The uncontrollability of a short-board made Meryem feel uneasy at first but once she started to learn on another friend’s longboard, a surfer was born.
“My nickname in the water was Muhammad”, a very typical name for a male - Meryem told me. The Moroccan surfer was the only girl surfing at the time in her local waters and the boys she surfed with decided she was one of them too. She described a great contradiction about her surfing because even though she felt supported by the other surfer boys, she had to push herself so much harder to keep up with them and not fall behind. She went on to join the surf association in her town and entered her first competition when she was 12 in which she won. Her adoration for the sport grew immensely in that moment and her urge to compete absorbed her.
This was one of the last times for a long time Meryem felt respected as a female surfer both on and off the beach.
Since then, Meryem has many times been confronted in the line-up by men even at her local surf spot. Although, it is much harder to get respect as a female surfer in other parts of Morocco, especially in the North. Meryem led on that it is mostly because of the sheer lack of women surfers but that cultural and religious ideology also play a part.
“Surf, it’s not for a woman.”
“It’s too big for you.”
“This is not your place.”
“Your place is in the house.”
These are some of the many things men have said or shouted to Meryem over the years of her surfing career but I could tell by the emotion in her voice that words are nothing compared to being dropped in on. Being surrounded by 150 men in the water sometimes, Meryem has enough courage and confidence to stand up to them. She exclaimed, “I tell them that I can surf too, that it is not only your wave.”
Meryem admitted though that she cannot always be that brave. Horribly, some confrontations in the water have gotten physical. She described to me that she has had her leash pulled at times and splashing isn’t unusual. Worse, Meryem was actually hit in the head by a local surfer while on a surf trip to Indonesia. Times such as these force Meryem out of the water. She doesn’t want to look weak in front of the men who view her as so but cannot hold back tears either.
Meryem vocalized that she ended up coming face to face with this man later on. She questioned him why he, a 50-year-old man, would hit a 17-year-old girl who is probably the age of his daughter.
Time and time again, Meryem’s resilience has kept her pushing through hardship and charging bigger waves. Besides gender discrimination in the water, gaining support of her surfing career from her local community and her family has also been a struggle.
Meryem is the youngest of her family with four older sisters and two older brothers. She said that her parents were not supportive in the beginning of her surfing career. She described a negative stigma many people in her town perceive about surfing culture. Her dad was worried that she would fall into a bad crowd so Meryem had to prove to him that she was serious about surfing, telling him “I want to be champion” and eventually presenting physical proof aka some trophies! Meryem now has full support of her family in her current and future aspirations with surfing. She commented in reference to her dad, “Even though he doesn't have a lot of money to buy new boards for me, I have something more important which is you have your family next to you.”
It was awesome to hear that the female surfing scene in Morocco has changed a lot since Meryem was young. She mentioned that there are more and more girls training and competing every year but many barriers still prevent girls from following in Meryem’s footsteps. Some people of the Islam religion think that it is wrong for women to surf and that wearing a wetsuit can be seen as offensive or inappropriate. Meryem explained that she has a different view of Islam than some other people but chooses to believe that “you can do what you want if you do it with heart”.
“When you inspire a woman to surf, it is one of the best things.”
Meryem truly is a champion of female surfers. She constantly supports other female surfers in the waters of her hometown and everywhere else. Media of Meryem in Morocco is a huge reason why more girls have started to surf, join camps and associations. When I asked her about her plans for the future, the Moroccan phenom said that she will be back to competing soon enough but also is working towards opening a surf camp and to be a surf coach. She went on to say that there is not enough performance coaching in Morocco and it is something many up-and-coming surfers need desperately.
Her advice to young surfers everywhere:
“Keep doing what you want, following your heart. You have to fight for your dream to come true."