In January, she took home the trophy at the FBMA figure skating competition for the fourth consecutive year, cementing Emirati skater Zahra Lari as a true champion in her field. The FBMA is an annual figure skating competition held in Abu Dhabi, and is the only competition in the Arab included in the International Skating Union’s calendar.
Earlier this year, Zahri wrote a timely and empowering op-ed about how her career has taken her on a path as a role model where she now wants to encourage other girls to get into sports. Writing for Thenational.ae, Zahra talks about how a number of barriers finally being broken down around women and sports in the Arab world, such as women being allowed into football stadiums, highlights the need for more role models.
“Weeks earlier, I had sat on a stage at the International Conference of Sport for Women to discuss the role of the Arab sportswoman as a 21st century role model. It is a remarkable place in which we women in sport find ourselves as 2018 kicks off. These young girls and women discovering new sports need role models, especially here in the region where they are still relatively undiscovered, particularly lesser-known sports like mine. I did not have that when I was starting out but it is so important to me now to be a role model for younger girls,” she said.
Zahra goes on to explain that she fell in love with ice skating at 12 years-old after watching the movie ‘Ice Princess’. But because of the conservative culture she lived in growing up, her father discouraged her ice-skating ambitions because of what other people might say.
“He felt it was against our traditions and culture for an Emirati girl to compete in sports. He was worried about what other people would think and because figure skating was a really new sport here, no one knew enough about it. He told me to practice it as a hobby instead. I was upset about it, but I understood his reasons. It took him a year to come round,” she recalled.
But after going to cheer on a friend at a competition in Dubai, she said her father soon came around and allowed her to compete. By the time she was 15, she was training professionally, and in 2012 at the age of 17 she entered her first major competition in Italy. Little did she know she would be making history as the first Emirati skater, and the first skater to have her head covered.
But because of the strict dress code and the way the sport allocates points, her presence on the international circuit became even more pronounced when she had marks taken away for her choice of clothing that aligned with her religious beliefs. As a result, there was major outcry about this and it became a media story. Zahra says it didn’t affect her in the way people might expect, but in a different manner.
“I was more angry that it was the first time they had ever seen it in the sport. When I came home and was swamped by media attention, I knew I had a choice: I could either step down or decide to keep going as an ambassador for other women like me,” she said.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the scene, her barrier-breaking presence meant she had an opportunity to make a difference and capitalize on the attention in a positive way.
“I was still very young though and it is really hard to feel that much pressure and to be a role model at that age. There were so many negative things posted online and it is hard not to let those things affect you. But ultimately, I knew I had to make a difference and change things so that it wouldn’t happen again, either to myself or anyone else,” she said.
At the next competition, she met with judges to educate them about her Hijab, explaining that it would not fall off, and they were appeased. The judges were worried it could be a danger while she was on the ice, and once they learned it would not be, the ISU decided not to deduct points for it anymore. Skaters have Zahra Lari to thank for this.
Aside from ambitions to make it to the Olympics one day, Zahra says she is also very focused on helping to inspire the next generation of Arab women in figure skating as she doesn’t want to be the first and last woman in the sport.
“I am the highest level figure skater here so there is no one really to look up to but I always try to look at the positive side of things. It makes me more determined because I want the sport to grow. There are so many other little girl skaters now who look up to me so I think I need to set the best example and just keep pushing and showing them there are going to be many different barriers and difficulties as it is a new sport here but that they don’t matter.
Zahra continues to say while she didn’t set out to become a role model initially, she feels a sense of duty because she didn’t have anyone to look up and doesn’t want others who come after her to feel alone. It’s one of the reasons why she volunteers in schools and participates in campaigns such as Nike’s ‘What Will They Say About You?’ video which featured a handful of female athletes from the Arab world defying critics and naysayers with their talent and determination to be the best.
“No matter where you are in the world, girls always struggle a lot more than boys in the field of sports. Here it is a bit more difficult because it is still very new but it is getting so much better,” she said.
“Pretty soon I won’t be the only Emirati figure skater at this level. That makes me really happy because I’m not going to be skating forever. Eventually I’m going to stop so I need other people to take over. I want the sport to keep going, I don’t want it to stop once I stop skating and the maximum retirement age is 30, which is only eight years away. For me it’s really important to have the next generation getting into the sport,” she ended her piece.
Her presence will indeed inspire and empower a generation of girls in the Arab world to see what is possible by her achievements, and as shown by her power to change the minds of judges in the figure skating world, Zahra Lari is also using her platform to break down misconceptions about Arab women. We can’t wait to see her competing in the Olympics one day.