These ladies from Sabah are making waves via their Sabah Surfer Girls club


The Sabah Surfer Girls are making waves by breaking barriers and providing a platform for female surfers to shine in a traditionally male-dominated sport. Photo: Vui Kun Photography

While many people turn to yoga or massages to unwind, lawyer Benazir Japiril Bandaran has found a rather uncommon way to do so – by surfing.

The Kota Kinabalu-based lawyer looks forward to the thrilling sport to relax after a hectic week in the office, finding solace in riding the waves along the picturesque beaches of Sabah.

"I was first introduced to surfing by friends. Three years ago, I signed up for surfing lessons in Kota Kinabalu. I have become addicted to surfing because I think it is an elegant and graceful sport.

"Surfing is a breathtaking experience, especially the thrill of ‘catching’ the waves. (This is the point where a wave hits the tail of the surfboard and starts to push the surfer forward to ride towards the shore on the crest of a wave). I especially miss surfing during my busiest days at work,” says Benazir, 33, during a Zoom interview from Kota Kinabalu recently.

Riding a wave is a breathtaking experience, says Benazir (left), seen here with surfer Mohd Hafiz Saripin. Photos: Benazir Japiril BandaranRiding a wave is a breathtaking experience, says Benazir (left), seen here with surfer Mohd Hafiz Saripin. Photos: Benazir Japiril Bandaran

Two years ago, Benazir and her friend, businesswoman Saidatul Badariah Pintaz, 35, co-founded Sabah Surfer Girls (SSG), a KK-based surf club to foster a supportive community where women can learn, grow and thrive in their shared passion for surfing.

Today, the group has 66 female members between the ages of 13 and 38. These women are making waves by breaking barriers and providing a platform for female surfers to shine in a traditionally male-dominated sport.

SSG is the only all-female surfers club in Sabah.

"Saidatul and I first set up our Instagram page to encourage more girls to surf and promote surfing in Sabah. Even though we are a small group, we are slowly growing. We are a close-knit group comprising girls who are passionate about surfing. Together, we support each other, in the water or on land.

Surfer Nea Qathryna enjoying the waves at Tanjung Aru Beach. Photo: Vui Kun Photography Surfer Nea Qathryna enjoying the waves at Tanjung Aru Beach. Photo: Vui Kun Photography"Being in the sea might seem intimidating for some surfers but we always feel empowered after paddling to the line-up with the male surfers. I enjoy surfing as it gives me a sense of freedom from within," explains Benazir, an exco member of Persatuan Luncur Ombak Malaysia, the national governing body for surfing in Malaysia.

SSG member Shafina Adly, 37, adds that she doesn't face any physical limitations when surfing with male surfers.

"While we may not be as physically strong as the boys, we can perform just as well as them. When we show our abilities and accomplishments, we inspire other women to pursue their passion for surfing.

“Learning to surf and mastering the necessary skills require motivation. That's when we girls support each other to step out of our comfort zones, tackle challenges, and most importantly, overcome any fears of being in the ocean. It's a journey of motivation and empowerment where we encourage one another to push our boundaries in surfing," says Shafina, an entrepreneur.

Sabah Surfer Girls members looking resplendent in traditional outfits. Shafina (fourth from left) say members encourage one another to push their boundaries in surfing. Photo: Instagram/SabahSurferGirlsSabah Surfer Girls members looking resplendent in traditional outfits. Shafina (fourth from left) say members encourage one another to push their boundaries in surfing. Photo: Instagram/SabahSurferGirls

Riding high

In a society where gender norms and stereotypes often dictate women's choices, Benazir and her surfer friends challenge the misconception that extreme sports are exclusively reserved for men.

The mother of two says there is still a common perception that women should do chores at home instead of engaging in outdoor activities like hiking and surfing.

"I was an active marathoner and trail runner when I got married in 2015. However, some family members told me to stop running just because I had settled down but I ignored them. I continued to join ultra marathons after my first son Armin Yusuf was born in 2016. I started doing more outdoor activities like hiking and surfing after giving birth to my daughter, Amal Rumi, in 2018.

"Being active is part of my lifestyle. It's a healthy habit and it keeps me happy. Sports activities like surfing and running are stress relievers."

Benazir's children Armin (left) and Amal (right) love nature and being by the beach, sun and sea. Benazir's children Armin (left) and Amal (right) love nature and being by the beach, sun and sea.

Malaysia has produced many talented female surfers like Nur Hawani Norrizan, Nur Alia Erika Mohd Azmi and Mona Rasidah Abdul Rashid.

Recently, Qadeja Munirah Musaddiq emerged first runner-up in the women's longboard at the 2022 Phuket Beach Festival's International Surfing Competition in Thailand. She will represent Malaysia at the World Surf League (longboard qualifying series 1000) in Bali next month.

These women prove that they can ride the waves as skillfully and fearlessly as their male counterparts.

"(The number of) women surfers is growing immensely in the five states of Sabah, Pahang, Terengganu, Langkawi, Kedah and Johor. Many Malaysian women have represented the country in international competitions. Hopefully with more exposure, our country can produce more professional women surfers. Slowly but surely, surfing will be part of our lifestyle," Benazir explains.

Members of the Sabah Surfer Girls participating in the Toro Surf Attack 2021 surf competition in Pantai Karambunai, Sabah. Members of the Sabah Surfer Girls participating in the Toro Surf Attack 2021 surf competition in Pantai Karambunai, Sabah.Over the years, SSG members have participated in a few surfing competitions like the Cherating Surf Festival, Tioman Surfestival, Iramalog and 2021 Toro Surf Attack.

In March, the members spoke on women empowerment and surfing at the Sumandak Exhibition at Ruang Tamu Ekosistem in Kota Kinabalu in conjunction with International Women's Day.

Shafina says it is crucial to encourage everyone, regardless of gender, to pursue their passion for surfing.

"Surfing used to be seen as a sport mostly for guys. However, things are changing as more and more girls are getting involved in this water sport. Female surfers are achieving impressive things in competitive surfing, and their accomplishments are being recognised all around the world. Additionally, there are many organisations and communities that actively support and promote women in surfing," shares Shafina, who picked up surfing in 2012.

Benazir chips in: "There is also the misconception that surfing is easy. Surfing is thrilling and very addictive, but it is tough. Even though surfing is challenging, that makes it more exciting. The biggest challenge is to balance on a moving board. One must work on core strength and hip flexibility to become a competent surfer.

"Surfing has taught me how to keep my balance in just a split second, when you have so many decisions to make, but you know that you just have to be brave to catch the wave.”

However, the surf culture is often viewed as part of Western culture, and Benazir has received a fair share of brickbats regarding her choice of swimwear. She is often seen in her full body suit and a hijab.

Some surfers see surfing as an opportunity to do something outside of their comfort zones and to conquer fears. Photo: Mohd Asyraf Some surfers see surfing as an opportunity to do something outside of their comfort zones and to conquer fears. Photo: Mohd Asyraf“As a Muslim, I always receive negative remarks that my swimwear is too tight. But I don’t let these comments affect me. On the other hand, surfing has made me more athletic. I can say I gained more muscles after surfing more actively, and post-surf always makes me happier."

Soaking up the sun

SSG members surf mainly in the middle or towards the end of the year during monsoon season. They travel to surfing spots all over Sabah’s west coast, including Tanjung Aru, Karambunai, Sabandar, Kota Belud and Kudat. They try to stay physically fit during off-season months by engaging in cardio exercises.

Most of them prefer to surf on a longboard because it is more stable and relaxing.

Benazir tries to surf as much as she can, but it depends on how she juggles between work and family.

Her children and husband, businessman Ahmad Farid Sainuri, 34, often accompany her on surfing trips.

"Being at the beach, especially going surfing, makes us understand that nature is too beautiful to be wasted. My kids are nature lovers and they enjoy being by the beach, sun and sea. At the same time, I try to make them understand how unpredictable nature can be, and that we must be alert and aware of our surroundings.

Sabah Surfer Girls at Sabah's Pantai Karambunai. Photo: Mohd Asyraf Sabah Surfer Girls at Sabah's Pantai Karambunai. Photo: Mohd Asyraf"The best bit is we can't take tech devices into the water. We only have time to appreciate the waves while looking after our safety," says Benazir, who uses the MagicSeaWeed (MSW Surf Forecast) app to check surf forecasts.

She adds: "Simply by surfing we can learn so much about preserving the ocean and marine life. When we bring more friends to surf, more awareness is made as they will share their experiences to their networks."

Her message to women who want to learn to surf is: "Just surf. Women have so much more potential in this sport. You are never too old or too young to start surfing. It is a lifetime sport that brings so much experience and endless exposure to Mother Earth.

"Surfing is a type of self-care all women should experience; it's just the best feeling to be on the surfboard and enjoying each moment.”

We can only imagine Benazir with her surfboard in hand, hitting the waves with skill and grace, and finding solace in the ocean's embrace every chance she gets.


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