Zahra Lari was only 12 when she took up figure skating as a hobby she enjoyed practising once a week. Little did she know, she would become the first Emirati figure skater to compete internationally, and the first woman to take part in an international figure skating competition wearing a headscarf.
Now at 22, Lari trains on ice six days a week at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, for an average of six hours and has taken part in several competitions around the world. Through her participation, the UAE has also become the first Arab country to join the International Skating Union (ISU).
To be the first figure skater wearing a headscarf in the world makes me really happy and very proud but, at the same time, it adds a lot of pressure since many girls look up to me. I am very honoured to be able to represent all the Muslim girls out there in such a huge sport.”
– Zahra Lari | First Emirati figure skater
“It all started when I was 12, I watched the movie ‘The Ice Princess’ and was inspired to try skating. When I first stepped on the ice, I fell a thousand times, but I still loved it,” said Lari.
She explained that while ice skating started off as a hobby, she quickly made progress and was told by her coach that she should come in for more training sessions. Soon after, Lari was spotted by a Romanian coach during a summer training camp, and was assured she was ready to compete internationally.
“I started coming in at 4.30am, before school, to train, and then coming back after school for more training in the evenings. I was working really hard and I loved it,” said Lari.
Juggling both school and training, Lari took part in her first local competition in 2007 followed by her first international competition at the European Cup in Canazei, Italy, in 2012, at the age of 15.
“I went out there and had a lot of fun, I wasn’t too nervous about the competition — I was doing exactly what I do in practice and had a great experience,” said Lari.
However, along with her international debut came controversy. Lari was deducted points for wearing a headscarf during her performance.
“I wasn’t mad or upset about the ruling. To be fair, it was the first time for the judges to see a skater wearing a headscarf, and they had no idea how to judge it since there were no rules in place about it,” explained Lari.
The teenage skater later had a meeting with the ISU and requested the union to examine whether the headscarf was safe to wear while skating. After approving it as a part of her costume, Lari was never deducted points for wearing a headscarf going forward.
“To be the first figure skater wearing a headscarf in the world makes me really happy and very proud but at the same time it adds a lot of pressure, since many girls look up to me. I am very honoured to be able to represent all the Muslim girls out there in such a huge sport,” said Lari.
Recalling her favourite competition, the Asian Winter Games in Japan in 2017, Lari pointed out she often ties her left skate laces then her right before getting on the ice for a competition. She has more than 30 medals and trophies, and aims to continue skating with the Olympic Games 2022 being her next goal.
The Emirati skater now attends Abu Dhabi University where she is a junior, majoring in Environmental Health and Safety.
With supportive parents and her two brothers by her side, Lari said she aims to fully focus on skating after graduation as it will always be a part of her life.
“I would also like to thank the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy for encouraging and supporting women in the UAE and this region to go out there and practise what they love, and for giving them a voice and the ability to progress in all areas of sports,” added Lari.