By ELISE CAMPBELL
RABAT, Morocco – “My favorite color is black, like my eyes,” Oumaima Erhali, 17, said with a smile as she drew in the sand with her untied, muddy skate shoes. As the ocean breeze tickled her face, she tightened the strings that held a black hood over her head and slid a shell into the cargo pocket of her Hawaiian-printed board shorts.
Erhali doesn’t cook with her family, because she’s too busy spicing up her shoes with sand. She also doesn’t wear a hijab, even though she’s a dedicated Muslim. Erhali defies gender norms in her society, yet holds fast to core traditional beliefs by deciding for herself what “modesty” is and how she will apply the concept to her life.
“You’ll encounter many women and girls. Some wear the hijab and some don’t,” she said. “But everyone is a Muslim. Everyone.”
While Muslim women are not a homogenous group, religion is a defining and important aspect of identity to those who consider themselves to be Muslim. For those who are active, this poses a unique challenge. Islamic codes of conduct that require modesty in dress, as well as gender relations, can complicate their ability to participate in mainstream sports culture. Erhali doesn’t let this intimidate her.
This year marks her fourth summer of surfing. The steady heartbeat of crashing waves has energized and comforted her long before she began riding them. Erhali’s older brother, Karim, used to surf and work as a rescue officer on the same shore she now frequents. But five years ago, when Karim was 20, he fell asleep on the couch with a fever, and never woke up.
She pulled out an old photo of a man flying off a surfboard, head-first, into a white-walled wave.
“That’s Karim,” she said, letting out a laugh as she traced the photo’s rough edges with her finger.
Erhali’s left hand mirrored the motion of a bird in flight as her right clasped onto the water-stained photo.
“It’s no problem,” she said softly, her black eyes deepening as she repeated herself. “No problem.”
She meticulously refolded the photo along the four disintegrating creases and slipped it back into her pocket. Her bare knees, scarred from years of climbing on and crashing into coastal rocks, straighten as she stood. She brushed the sand from her palms and bounded toward the surf club.
An on-duty water rescue officer threw a hand out to Erhali and their two hands collided in a familiar and playful embrace. Her laugh rang out above the shouts of the boys playing soccer nearby and the water smacking the jagged rocks. Erhali considers herself among friends here.
“This is my surfing club,” she said, pointing toward a crumbing, off-white surf club sign. “In the summer, I’m always right here.”
Erhali continued down the water’s edge to a dirt path leading back into the walls of the Medina. Her shoes left sand prints on the pavement as she walked home for lunch.
“Oumaima’s a good girl,” her aunt, Khadija Eloumlouki, said as she tussled Erhali’s coarse, salt-coated, black hair. “She’s happy.”
Eloumlouki’s 21-year-old daughter, Fatimazohra, beamed a toothy grin when Erhali waltzed into the living room. Fatimazohra, who has cerebral palsy, was resting her twisted limbs on a strategically placed mountain of colorfully decorated pillows. Erhali danced over to her, gracefully grabbed her rigid, cupped hand and sung a short song about the beach. After giving Fatimazohra a wink and kiss on the forehead, Erhali sat on the couch. Her eyes glowed while she recounted her morning for Eloumlouki, who smiled and laughed along.
Erhali prioritizes her family and education, and will start studying law at a university in Rabat next year. Born and raised in the old medina in Rabat, she wants to break through social barriers and make a difference.
“I want to be a judge – to bring liberty,” Erhali said beaming. “It’s not about the money.”
She doesn’t want to marry, have children or move away from Rabat. She wants to be a beacon of hope, justice and liberation for other women in her family and her community.
After lunch with her family, Erhali slipped her shoes back on, leaving a pile of sand in the doorway, and took the well-beaten path back to the beach.
Erhali knows social expectations of modesty would crush her if she let them. Instead, she runs with a surfboard under her arm to confront them head-on.
As she stood on the shore watching the sunset behind the waves, Erhali threw her arms out to both sides and said, “It’s beautiful! Isn’t it?”