Meet Zahra Lari, first professional figure skater to compete internationally wearing headscarf

Meet the woman who is not only the first skater from a Persian Gulf state to participate in international figure skating competitions, but the first to do so wearing a headscarf.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a Persian Gulf state where temperatures soar as high as 48 degree Celsius (118.4 Fahrenheit) during summer, is famous for hosting the Formula 1, The Dubai World Cup horse race, camel races — and even international cricket and skydiving tournaments.

It is hard to imagine, however, that this desert country where heavy snowfall is considered a national phenomenon, could become the first Arab state to join the International Skating Union (ISU), which administrates ice skating sports.

But that’s exactly what has happened.

And it’s thanks to Zahra Lari, aged 22, who is not only the first Emirati and the first skater from a Persian Gulf state to participate in international figure skating competitions, but the first to do so wearing a headscarf.

“I began skating when I was 12 years old, after watching the Disney movie ‘Ice Princess’,” said Lari to CNN by email. “I just happened to see the movie and loved it immediately!”

She was a student at the time, and recalls waking up at 4.30am to train before going to school, and the practising again in the afternoon. Larhi trained at the only rink in Abu Dhabi, located within Zayed Sports City.

Lari’s main sponsor is The Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, based in Abu Dhabi. Since 2015, it has held the FBMA Trophy for Figure Skating. Since 2014, it has organized the International Conference of Sports for Women. Lari believes both events have encouraged women in sports and changed perceptions about them.

“My father felt that it went too much against our normal traditions and culture for a girl to compete in sports,” recalls Lari. At first, she decided not to skate competitively to avoid annoying her father.

“As a family, we went to competitions only to cheer for my friends that were competing.”

But after seeing his daughter’s enthusiasm for her colleagues on the ice rink, he gradually relented, and gave Lari permission to enter competitions.
“Now he is my biggest supporter,” she says.

Today when Lari competes professional figure skating competitions she wears a modified version of the figure-skating outfit. See-through fabrics such as Lycra are replaced with opaque cloth, she covers her toned legs with thick leggings and wears a matching headscarf.

In 2012 at the European Cup in Canazei, Italy, Lari was the first woman to figure skate in front of a professional international judging panel. The judges deducted points from her score for an outfit violation.

“I really don’t have any negative feelings towards this ruling,” says Lari. “The judges at that time had never seen someone compete with it so they really didn’t know how to score me.”

Subsequently, she campaigned the ISU to change its rules.

“The head of the ISU development at that time, requested to see me while I was in Hungary. He wanted to see the scarf and understand how safe it was on the ice,” recalls Lari.

Subsequently, at the Nebelhorn Trophy, in Germany, where Lari competed in September, officials were instructed not to consider the veil to violate Rule 501 of of the ISU Technical Rules, governing attire among other things.

That was a one-off ruling. The ISU told CNN via email that “assessment of the rule and whether it needs to be more specific for the future is ongoing.”

In September, she competed in the qualifying games for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will take place in South Korea.

“My goals go beyond being the first person to represent the UAE at a Winter Olympics,” she says. “I want to compete at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and the World Championships. These competitions are my current goal.”

In 2017, as her profile rose, she also participated in Nike’s online campaign, “What Will They Say About You?”, with a number of other Arab female athletes to encourage women in the region to push the boundaries when pursuing their dreams.

Today, Lari is a full-time student at Abu Dhabi university, where she is completing a bachelor degree on Environment Health and Safety. Her long-term dream, however, is to become a figure skating trainer.

(Based on original reporting in CNN)

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