We are unstoppable, says Emirati figure skater
Zahra Lari sports her Nike hijab that was recently designed for female Muslim athletes. - Photo by Ryan Lim
Abu Dhabi - In the lead up to the Emirati Women's Day on August 28, Khaleej Times profiles five inspiring women who have made their country proud (Part 1 of a 5-part series)
Ever since she stepped her skates into the ice rink at the age of 11, Zahra Lari knew she had a bigger goal to accomplish.
Few years later, the Emirati figure skater started rigorously training for six hours a day, six days a week to be the first to represent the UAE at the 2018 Winter Olympics next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Today, she is Mena region's first international competitive figure skater.
"Yes we are unstoppable," said 22-year-old Lari as the country is gearing up to celebrate its third Emirati Women's Day next week.
The skater, who sported her Nike hijab that was recently designed for female Muslim athletes, is gearing up for her upcoming Olympics qualifications in Slovenia at the end of September.
"Just to be at the Olympic qualifications is a huge deal. It is to show the world that although I'm from the desert, but I can still do a winter sport, which is more important than always winning."
But Lari's aim extends even beyond the Olympics. She has her sights set on competing at the World Figure Skating Championships, the next Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and the Asian Winter Games.
"There's so much more happening outside the Olympics. And even if I didn't qualify for next year's Winter Olympics, I will try harder for 2022 Winter Olympics," said Lari, who juggles her trainings with her third-year environmental health and safety studies at Abu Dhabi University.
Witnessing how far Emirati women have come, she said the "progress has been crazy".
"Even in sports, a few years ago there were only very few women, but now we have made it to almost every sport you can think of in a couple of years, which is insane," she laughed.
Emirati women have come a long way
Lari emphasised that her personal progress, along with other Emirati women, would not have happened without the government's support.
The young skater's ice training and international competitions' expenses are covered by the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy. She is also supported by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council.
"Without the government's support, I wouldn't be skating. It is a very expensive sport and they've been supporting me financially and morally since day one," said Lari.
Although she was subject to online criticism when she first started figure skating - particularly with her hijab - Lari said the country's support and the leadership's notion of positivity and progress helped her.
"I have a lot of positivity and encouragement surrounding me, so I wouldn't look at negativity and that's part of the message I want to send across to the young generation," said Lari.
"People will criticise you no matter what you do, and will tell you your goals are stupid, but you should trust yourself and surround yourself with positive people. That's what our leaders tell us too."
Beyond encouraging other UAE young nationals to join the sport and aiming to become a future figure skating coach, Lari said competing internationally will fight stereotypes surrounding Middle Eastern women.
"It is to tell girls that they can do whatever they set their mind to, even if you're the first one doing it, we must go for it," said Lari while recalling the country's goals to remain the top.
She noted that while Emirati, and Arab women generally, proved themselves in various fields internationally, they are still faced with misconceptions from time to time.
"The main misconception is that Arab girls don't do anything other than being housewives, but the message I'm trying to send through my sport is that we are doing everything we want and the government is supporting females in whatever they do," she said.
Being a partner recently in Nike's recent launch of the hijab designed for Muslim athletes, Lari said she's usually faced with the question whether she is forced to be covered. She stressed that Arab women's international participation in any field helps curb the misconceptions.
"It's important for me to tell them that nothing is forced. While at the beginning I was faced with such questions, now the international skating community doesn't only support me, but encourages me with what I am doing."
And with a "huge and general positive change of attitude" towards Arab women, Lari said now the world understands how hardworking the Emirati woman is.
"The increased female representation in the UAE cabinet, and the appointment of women to become the world's first happiness and tolerance ministers shows how hard women had to work for it, and they were cherished by the leadership," said Lari.
About Zahra Lari
Zahra Lari ,22, is the UAE and Mena region's first international competitive figure skater and the UAE's 2018 Winter Olympic hopeful in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In 2015, she won first place at the seniors Reykjavik Winter Games and has been awarded a gold medal twice for interpretive programmes in Hungary. She is the three time UAE national champion, as well as winning many other gold and silver medals within the UAE. Lari is a partner in the Nike Pro-hijab campaign, and has been appointed to serve on the Athletes Engagement Committee for the Special Olympics World Games 2019. She has been active with both national and International media in support of women the female youth.