For 24-year-old Zahra Lari, being first – or the only – is a badge of honor. The Emirati figure skating champion has racked up an impressive number of firsts in her ground-breaking career: first Emirati to compete in figure skating, first Middle Eastern woman to land a triple jump (at this year’s EduSport Trophy in Bucharest), first (and only) UAE athlete to hoist the nation’s flag at the Winter Universiade in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, this past March.
“It was one of the most memorable moments of my life,” she recalls. “It was the first time the UAE flag was carried out and it was an honor for me to be the one carrying it. The media attention was unbelievable, I had about 50 cameras following me. It felt like a great step forward.” There’s one more “first” to add to her résumé: Lari is the first woman ever to perform in a hijab on the ice. “I’m extremely proud of the barriers I’ve overcome,” she says. “They weren’t small obstacles, either. I always forget what I’ve achieved and only remember when someone asks, which is a good thing, otherwise I think I would be overwhelmed.”
Lari started skating at 13, inspired by the movie Ice Princess, in which a high school student chases her dream of becoming a professional figure skater. The movie title also inspired her nickname, even though, she says, her father had reservations about her pursuing skating as a career. “When I started competing at 16, not many Emirati girls were participating in sports, especially figure skating. He was worried about people perhaps not understanding and that there might be a negative reaction, so he said I could train but not compete,” she recalls. “I went to a competition in Dubai to cheer a friend but my father could see that I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. That day he told me he’ll support me in my quest to compete.” With her family’s assistance, Lari went on to establish the Emirates Skating Club, which now has more than 100 skaters as members, ranging in age from three to 50.
Her days on the ice have not been without challenges – especially ones linked to her faith. At the 2012 European Cup in Canazei, Italy, she was deducted points for wearing a hijab, on the premise that it was not an approved part of the costume. “Up until then it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I was different,” she says. “I went and I skated and I enjoyed it. Afterwards, I noticed I’d had a point deducted. The judges had never seen a figure skater compete in a hijab before. There was no precedent, so they didn’t know how to judge it. Subsequently, we met with the International Skating Union (ISU) and campaigned for a change to regulations.”
Skaters in hijabs have since not lost points, with the ISU assessing its costume rules. Lari has also been instrumental in securing the UAE permanent membership of the ISU, in order to pave the way for the next generation of Emirati skaters. “Here in the Middle East, there are not the barriers there once were. Things have changed so much these past few years,” says Lari, who also took part in Nike’s campaign for its Pro hijab launch. “When I started, Arab women were not involved in sport, but now you can see an Arab athlete participating in most sports. The main struggle is that we still face being typecast globally. It will take time to change attitudes, but as we continue to participate on the world stage at high levels of competition, stereotyping will go away.”
Lari is finishing her degree in environmental health and safety at Abu Dhabi University, while also focusing on qualifying for next year’s Four Continents and World Figure Skating championships, as well as the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. To accomplish this, she’s up at 4.30am every morning and on the ice at 5.15am. Her hero is the five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medallist American figure skater Michelle Kwan. “I look up to her because once she stopped skating competitively, she stayed focused on what she believes in. She plays a huge role in the Special Olympics. That’s what I want to do; I don’t just want to disappear and have no one know who I am.”
Photography: Sabrina Rynas
Style: Anita Altmane
Makeup: Denny Clements at MMG Artists
Fashion Coordinator: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
With special thanks to Zayed Sports City