• Farhana Hussain and Chadnee Shah. (Supplied)
Chadnee Shah hopes to empower young women to not be constrained by cultural straight-jackets: “Stand up straight and look proud of who you are...don’t cower down.”
Sharon Verghis

6 Jun 2018 - 10:25 AM  UPDATED 8 Jun 2018 - 12:38 PM

“I’ve always felt different. I’ve felt it all my life.”

Chadnee Shah has defied cultural expectations since childhood.

Born and bred in East London and the daughter of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, Shah, 26, now a health worker and freelance personal trainer in London, has always felt like a misfit.

At first, it was due to her sportiness: “I was not a girly girl”. A passionate Liverpool FC fan, “I played with the lads. I never hung with the girls.”

For Shah, sport proved a safe harbour. On the soccer field, she could find a tribe, identity and acceptance. 

At age 10, however, this sense of belonging came under siege when she started wearing the hijab.

Overnight, it seems, her anonymity disappeared. Now visibly a member of a minority faith, she was bullied at school, she says. Her scarf attracted stares and comments in public. By the time she entered high school, cultural expectations around modesty and separation between sexes meant she could no longer play with the lads. She looked into girls’ soccer but was disillusioned; eventually she turned to basketball and found her niche, playing in a successful local women’s team for the last eight years.

Three years ago, Shah’s sporting life took another curious twist.

She became intrigued by skateboarding, and eventually bought a skateboard, practising at home before venturing out. At the Bethnal Green skate park, Shah struck up an unlikely friendship with London-based Australian contemporary artist - and ex-pro skater - Shaun Gladwell. He came over for a chat and a friendship was seeded, the pair meeting regularly along with Farhana Hussain, a friend from basketball and a keen skater.

One day towards the end of 2016, Gladwell suggested making a video of their skating experience.

It was only then, Shah says laughing, that she realised he was one of Australian contemporary art’s global stars. “I didn’t know he was famous, but eventually he told me he was doing all this art stuff, and I thought, okay, this is pretty cool, wow. He’s done all this amazing stuff and he’s hanging out with me.”

Over four months, footage was shot in London, and later, Sydney. The result was a 30-minute VR short film called Storm Riders, an immersive, intimate exploration of Islam, skateboarding and sexual politics featuring Gladwell’s signature experimental video art spliced with footage recorded by Shah and Hussain on small VR cameras provided by producer Leo Faber.

Storm Riders taps into a surprising phenomenon: not just the rising number of women taking on skateboarding -  In the UK, this includes the likes of hijab-wearing skater Sumaiyah Bibi while in Australia, there is a surprisingly diverse range of female skating gangs -  but its growing popularity in more traditional countries. 

In Afghanistan, the Skateistan program attracts almost 1100 children age 5-13, of which half are girls, while India now has its first female pro skateboarder, Atita Verghese.

Shah and Hussain were encouraged to capture not just their daily lives as young Muslim women in London but their reactions to real-life events where the political intersected, often bloodily, with the personal.

This included everything from their reactions to London’s spate of acid attacks to rising Islamophobia in the UK in a pattern we have seen in Australia – to global bigotry, exemplified by US president Donald Trump’s attacks on  London’s Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan.

They also recorded their reactions to Islamic terrorism –  the Storm Riders shoot unfolded against the backdrop of last year’s UK terrorist attacks. “We were encouraged to talk about the Manchester bombing, and what we felt about it,” Shah says.

We like to think the world shares our view of Australia as an egalitarian, tolerant nation but Shah speaks of her and Farhana’s trepidation when they accompanied Gladwell to Sydney last July for the remake of his seminal work Storm Sequence.

Their fears were fuelled by BBC reports they read about the Australia Day billboard controversy featuring young women in hijab. “We were actually quite scared - what is it going to be like?” She was relieved to find the harbour city safe and welcoming. “It was great, really lovely.”

Shah has high hopes for Storm Riders.  Among other things, she hopes it helps tackle the stereotype of passive, subservient Muslim women (“people say we have no say about wearing the hijab, for example, but we make our own minds up”) and address the belief held by some that Islam forbids women from playing sport.

“I would say, give me the proof – where does it say that?” Islam welcomes equality between men and women, and females playing sport, she says. “A lot of people are putting culture over what Islam says and they just make things up… that is why we are in this place at the moment.”

Shah also hopes that it will play a small part in empowering young women facing cultural and religious barriers to play sport. She is heartened by signs of change, from Nike’s Pro Hijab campaign, to the emergence of a vanguard of young Muslim women making strides in everything from iceskating to soccer.

Do not let yourself be defined and constrained by cultural straightjackets that have nothing to do with religion, she says. “Stand up straight and look proud of who you are...don’t cower down.”

Storm Riders is available to watch on the free SBS VR app for iOS, Android, and GearVR

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