Amazigh warrior queen inspires first women-led surf school in Morocco


Maryam El Gardoum found inspiration in an ancient Amazigh warrior queen in starting her surf school and becoming the face of surfing in Morocco.

It seems fitting that the five-time female Moroccan surfing champion, Maryam El Gardoum, was born and raised near Morocco’s surfing capital, Taghazout. As the front-runner of women’s surfing in Morocco, Maryam’s indigenous heritage has inspired her to build a lasting legacy for future Moroccan female surfers.

Morocco has some of the best year-round surf spots in the world, and great waves can be found throughout the country’s 2500-kilometer Atlantic coastline. But the Taghazout area is considered the country’s surfing capital, welcoming visitors from far and wide to its breaks, most notably to Anchor Point, a world-class right-hander.

Since as early as the 1950s, Moroccan breaks have been surfed by off-duty Western soldiers that had been stationed in the region, followed by the soul-searching hippies in the 1960s, setting out on pilgrimages to discover rites of passage. From then on, surf tourism has become increasingly popular, which has caused noticeable changes. Traditionally, families in the area make their living from banana farms, herding cattle or fishing. But surf tourism has welcomed new ventures including hotels and surf camps, and has also helped to cultivate a blossoming but male-dominated local surf culture.

Born in Tamraght, a small fishing village located a stone’s throw from Taghazout, Maryam has always loved the ocean. From a young age, she began swimming and bodyboarding along the Atlantic coastline. At age 11, after attempting to stand on her bodyboard, Maryam’s cousin gave her a surfboard and taught her how to use it.

Falling in love with surfing

“You know, I didn’t love surfing in the beginning. It wasn’t my dream,” says Maryam. “I first tried to surf on a shortboard, and it was too slippery. I couldn’t find my balance so I thought maybe surfing wasn’t for me. But step by step, I fell in love with the feeling of wave riding. I realized how much I love being in the ocean and surfing. Now, it’s everything. It’s my first love.”

“I was the only girl in the lineup but I’ve always felt like I belong there. I was always a tough girl, and I didn’t let anyone get me down. I never felt out of place in the water, and the boys respected me just like anyone else.”

While Maryam was accepted by the rest of her surfing friends, receiving the nickname “Mohammad,” to show she was equal to the other boys, she faced other challenges as the first female surfer in her area.

“At the time in Morocco, it wasn’t really accepted that a girl could ride the waves,” remembers Maryam. “But I really wanted it, so I didn’t let anyone stop me.”

Being the first of anything means that you often have to break barriers to allow others to follow. Maryam struggled to find girls’ wetsuits and had to borrow boards for years before she was able to get her own. Being the first female in the lineup in her area also meant that there wasn’t a support system in place to help her progress in competitive surfing. Her family, which includes two brothers and four sisters, have encouraged and supported her love for the ocean, but she soon had to convince her parents to help her pay the inscription fees to begin entering surf competitions.

“When I asked my parents to help pay for the inscription fees, my dad asked me if I really wanted to keep surfing,” says Maryam. “He wanted to be sure that this was right for me. I was young, but I promised him that I’d dedicate myself to surfing and if it ever went wrong, then I’d stop right away.”

Respecting the promise that she made to her father, Maryam dedicated herself to surfing. All of her free time, both during the early morning light before school and right up until the golden hues of sunset, Maryam practiced her carves and turns at the breaks near Tamraght.

“I improved my surfing because the boys were better than me,” says Maryam. “So I challenged myself to get better than them. I wanted to show people that females can do anything.”

Finding inspiration in Dihya, an Amazigh warrior queen

Her hard work paid off. Within the first year of learning to surf, Maryam had won her first local surfing competition at Devil’s Rock, an exposed beach break known for its clean, consistent waves. By age 14, Maryam had raised the stakes to win her first Moroccan championship. After achieving five national surfing championship titles and becoming the first to represent her country at the ISA World Surfing Championships alongside teammate Fatima Zahra Berrada, Maryam became the most decorated Moroccan female surfer.

Anchor Point is a right-hand point break that’s considered by many to be the best wave in Morocco when there’s a large Northwest swell. On a good day, the waves are known to get well above six feet, with long rides and several peaks. It’s here where Maryam has earned a reputation for charging triple overhead waves in style.

But without the support of Maryam’s family and friends, her surfing accolades wouldn’t have been made possible. The indigenous peoples of North Africa are commonly referred to as ‘Berber,’ which derives from the Latin word barbarous meaning barbarian. It’s a derogatory term meant to distinguish their community as less-developed than that of their colonizers. But this description couldn’t be further from the truth. The indigenous communities of North Africa have a vibrant culture and are incredibly proud of their heritage, referring to themselves as ‘Amazigh,’ meaning the free people.

Growing up, Maryam often heard stories narrated by elder members of her community, about a female warrior named Dihya, who led her people in resisting the Eastern conquest of North Africa for many years before being killed. Legends preserve distinct details of her appearance: tall in height, long black hair, large dark eyes. She was said to be charismatic and often attributed to having the gift of foresight — a poetic nod to her intelligence and wisdom.

Some details of Dihya’s life have been recorded from the perspective of her victors, in the Arabic historical records of the Muslim conquest of Africa. But for those of Amazigh descent, Dihya is a symbol of resistance — both against foreign occupation in North Africa and as a symbol of women’s rights. Dihya’s image is often used by activists to showcase how the Amazigh people are strong, and will not be diminished by other influences.

Much like Dihya, Maryam has had to fight to belong where she feels most at home. For any athlete to thrive, they need financial support to be able to compete. But the five-time Moroccan national surfing champion has received no financial help from brand endorsements or government funding. She has had to work hard to be able to afford her travel, equipment and entrance fees to national competitions.

From surfer to surf school director

To help fund her surfing career, Maryam gained her surf teaching qualifications and began working for a local surf school, sharing her passion for wave riding with beginner to intermediate surfers. But after being unfairly treated by her manager, Maryam received the push she needed to achieve a new goal: building a lasting legacy for Moroccan women’s surfing.

“The manager assigned me students for a lesson. Some were complete beginners and others could pop up in green waves,” says Maryam. “I couldn’t help them all on my own because some needed to be helped in the white water and others needed to be helped at the surf break. I asked the manager why he had booked me to teach an impossible lesson, and he told me, “If you want to work, then work. If you don’t want to work, then f* off.”

Channeling the bravery of Dihya, Maryam decided to quit her job and build the first female-led surf school in Tamraght. Through the life lessons that she has learned in surfing, Maryam wants to share this with other female surfers.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t very patient,” says Maryam. “But surfing taught me how to wait for your turn — and also to fight for it. Surfing has made me stronger. I have learned that you can rip on one wave, then fall from the next. But there will always be another wave.”

In honor of the Amazigh warrior, she named her new venture Dihya Surf School, which is now a thriving community welcoming female surfers from around the world to develop their surfing ability at the breaks around the Taghazout area. Her surf school welcomes locals and visitors to share the waves along the Moroccan coastline and provides a full itinerary of activities including surf lessons, theory lessons, trips to tourist hotspots, surf skating, and even sandboarding down the sand dunes of a nearby desert.

Today, Maryam has retired from competing at a national level, but she continues to advocate for more visibility for female surfers in her country. Recently, Maryam designed a T-shirt for her surf school, which depicts a woman wearing a hijab, with her arms positioned like Rosie the Riveter, that says, “We can surf it!”

“In Morocco, there are lots of women who wear hijabs that want to try surfing,” explains Maryam. “I wanted to create a design that shows that all women can surf, no matter who they are.”

In recent years, a number of Moroccan pro surfers have entered the world stage, most notably, Ramzi Boukhiam, who represented Morocco at the 2020 Olympics and most recently came second at the WSL Rip Curl Pro Anglet 2022. But we’ve yet to see a Moroccan woman do the same.

As much as Dihya has become a symbol of independence for the Amazigh, Maryam hopes to use her status as a pioneer of women’s surfing in Morocco to help others succeed. By providing surf lessons for local women, sharing her story, and advocating for more sponsorship opportunities for female athletes, Maryam hopes to make it easier for a talented female surfer to someday progress to competing at global surfing events.

“I’m proud to see that there are more women competing now,” says Maryam. “I want to see women’s surfing evolve in Morocco. I want to see women receive the sponsorships that brands wouldn’t give me when I started competing. I want to see a Moroccan woman on the Championship Tour. I hope one day I will see this.”

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