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25 March 2019 | in Figure Skating, FISU Athletes

Zahra Lari breaking barriers for young Muslim girls

Zahra Lari was all smiles in the kiss and cry zone after her performance in the figure skating women's short programme at the Krasnoyarsk 2019 Winter Universiade

“Follow your heart and don’t let anyone stop you,” said Zahra Lari. “No matter what you do in life there’s always going to be people criticising you. Just surround yourself with a good team and your family and you’ll definitely succeed.”


Figure skater Zahra Lari from the United Arab Emirates has inspired many young girls and Muslims to shatter traditions and soar to new heights.


Who would have thought that the movie Ice Princess would turn out to be the defining 98 minutes of her life? After watching the film, a then 12-year-old Lari begged her father to let her skate for fun.


Traditionally, professional skaters start at an early age, sometimes as early as three. Lari was almost a full 10 years behind her competitors before she had even learnt to skate.


Moreover, she hails from a country which is known for its deserts and heat as opposed to ice and snow. The UAE, also, customarily has held very conservative views on women’s roles in society, with the idea of women playing sport still – slowly - gaining momentum.


The young Emirati did not know it then, but she would defy all odds to become a ground-breaking Muslim athlete and public figure. After continuing her training, she was spotted by a Romanian coach in 2012 and was encouraged to compete in Europe. This was the important first step she would embark on to take her career to the next level.


As the list of accomplishments grew so did her fame around the world: first UAE figure skater to compete internationally; first woman to wear a hijab before a panel of international judges; multiple national titles; ambassador for Nike’s pro-hijab campaign; ambassador for Red Bull.


When asked about being sponsored by world renowned brands, she was grateful for the support in her vision.“It’s amazing and it shows that these big brands really want to support an idea. They believe in me and they know that I can do it, so now I just have to believe in myself.”


With a drive to prove her supporters right and show the world what she can do, Lari has now turned her attention to Krasnoyarsk and the Winter Universiade. To add to her long list of firsts and accomplishments, she is now the first UAE athlete to compete at the FISU Winter Games and proudly carried her country’s flag at the opening ceremony.


Performing in front of a near-sold-out Platinum Arena audience, each stride, twirl and axel went into the history books. Although, her performance didn’t go exactly according to plan, she took the experience in stride.


“My performance was not the best and my scores were not the best. But it’s a learning experience. I have to go to these bigger competitions, gain more experience [and learn] how to control the pressure and the nerves.”


However, Lari’s presence and performance meant so much more than the judges’ score. “It’s not just only about doing what I love and coming out and competing, it’s also to send the message to everyone.


“It’s just me trying to show the world that, yes I am covered, but I can [still] do what I love and do it at an international level.

“So that’s the main message that I’m trying to send to girls, don’t let anything stop you from doing what you love and especially because you’re covered.”


By FISU International Young Reporter James Oana at the Krasnoyarsk 2019 Winter Universiade