Having overcome cultural preconceptions, competitive figure skater Zahra Lari is sharpening her skates as she trains in advance of 2018 to become the first athlete from the Gulf to compete in the Winter Olympics.
It’s 08.30 and Zahra Lari has been on the ice for almost an hour when her coach yells out the warning: “Skate before the invasion!” Lari, the first internationally competitive figure skater from the United Arab Emirates, is scheduled for a lesson. But six buses of primary school children are on their way to the rink.
“You’re kidding,” she says, looking back at her Hungarian coach, Zsolt Kerekes. After brief disappointment, Lari accelerates her warm-up. She spins into a camel pose, one leg extended as she bends forward at a 90-degree angle. She drives into a corner to take the first double axel of the day. If she qualifies, come 2018 Lari will become the first athlete from the Gulf to compete in the Winter Olympics. Now 20, she started skating aged 12, almost a decade later than hopeful stars begin in Europe. Alongside her training she has built up an figure-skating programme from scratch. Hiccups such as this morning – there is just one Olympic-sized rink in Abu Dhabi and it’s public – are trivial.
But whether she graces the Olympic stage or not, Lari’s biggest impact may be closer to home. Her struggles typify those of women who have fought their way into public life. Across the Arabian Peninsula, women are better educated and trained than men but social stigmas often prevent them from taking up high-profile positions, whether in business, government or sport. Lari, for example, skates in a hijab but some still say her skating is un-Islamic. “People say, ‘You’re female, you shouldn’t be doing sports.’” Her response? “We’re not going against culture or tradition.”
Lari was born in 1995 to an Emirati father and US-born mother and has spent her whole life in the UAE. Two decades ago it was a tight-knit society of just 1.9 million – three times smaller than today – and the boom that has made Dubai and Abu Dhabi household names was still 10 years away. After watching the film Ice Princess aged 11, Lari announced that she wanted to figure skate. Her mother, Roquiya Cochran, objected; her father, Fadhel Abbas Lari, was more positive: “I kept thinking, ‘I want to take her to skate.’” One day he did and his daughter never looked back.
As Lari began to skate, the country was changing around her. Abu Dhabi has nearly 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and it has invested that wealth into transforming the emirate. Today, grandmothers who carried water on their backs sit with grandchildren raised with a housekeeper and a two-car garage. Women have seen their education expand; as of 2012, female university graduates outnumbered males nearly two to one. However, education hasn’t translated into the workforce as only a quarter of women are economically active. In sport, opportunities and facilities have improved but this hasn’t been matched by an openness to see women compete. “We have the infrastructure,” says Mariam Al Omaira, department manager of teams and sports events at the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy. “The barrier is culture and thinking that sport is not for women.”
Lari hit that barrier in 2009 when her father objected to her competing in Dubai. Some of his family, friends and even co-workers were worried about his daughter’s skating, warning him the sport could qualify as dancing, which is considered lewd. Fadhel told his daughter she could go only as a spectator. Yet as he sat with her in the audience, he began to change his mind. “She wanted so much to be a part of it,” he says. “So we sat down with her coach and her mother to see what we could do.”
Cultural preconceptions swing both ways, as Lari discovered when she first began competing abroad in 2012. While happy to welcome the oil-rich Gulf states, international sporting officials remain sceptical that countries with such conservative mores can produce real champions. “These officials don’t understand the culture, they just see the money,” says coach Kerekes.
One reason is Lari’s dress. Covered from wrist to ankle, her costume stands out in a sport dominated by short skirts and leotards. Her headscarf was the main concern that the International Skating Union (isu) raised when Lari – and the uae – applied for membership; the isu later agreed to allow her hijab. “They wanted to see that the headscarf was not flying around, slipping off or going to choke,” says Cochran.
isu president Octavio Cinquanta was blunt in his assessment of how the hijab could impact Lari’s prospects. “If a skater is wearing a uniform that is totally different from the one used by 99 per cent of the participants it becomes a little challenging for the judges,” he says. “You can do what you want but don’t cry if the judges start to say, ‘Well, you have a deduction because of this point.’”
Lari doesn’t let naysayers bother her. The UAE Ice Sports Federation hosted its first international competition in April and she came fourth among skaters from 29 countries. The media fawned over the event, which helped elevate Lari’s profile. Promoting female public figures is one of the most effective ways that the UAE can nudge women into the public sphere. “When the papers feature the first woman pilot or the first woman mountain climber and make clear that it’s something to be proud of, then the government is sending a clear signal,” says Meenaz Kassam, who teaches a women’s empowerment course at the American University of Sharjah. “It tells women that it’s OK to break the mould.”
Lari’s fame has inspired a handful of girls to join the 60 or so skaters in Abu Dhabi. Lari stars in and helps choreograph a public show each December and visits schools to talk about ice skating. For many women the barriers are still there but Lari is showing that it’s possible to break through. She seems uninhibited by the expectations riding on her. “For the Olympics, I’ll do my best and if it happens it happens. I would be the first from the Arab world. And that would be cool.”
1995 Born in Abu Dhabi, UAE
2007 Begins figure-skating lessons
2012 Enters her first competition
2013 The UAE Ice Sports Federation is officially recognised as a member of the International Skating Union
2014 Becomes the first skater to represent the UAE in an ISU competition, placing 12th in Slovakia
2015 Skates as the local star in the UAE’s first international skating competition: the Fatima Bint Mubarak Academy Trophy