Arab sportswomen like me are the role models for the next generation

I never chose to be in the limelight – but encouraging girls to take up sport is now my mission

UAE figure skater Zahra Lari is breaking down barriers to put Emirati women on the sporting map. AP
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Earlier this month, I lifted the FBMA trophy as the UAE national figure skating champion for a fourth consecutive year, just as barriers for female sporting fanatics were being lifted elsewhere in the Middle East and women in Saudi Arabia were being allowed into football stadiums for the first time. Weeks earlier, I had sat on a stage at the International Conference of Sport for Women to discuss the role of the Arab sportswoman as a 21st century role model. It is a remarkable place in which we women in sport find ourselves as 2018 kicks off. These young girls and women discovering new sports need role models, especially here in the region where they are still relatively undiscovered, particularly lesser-known sports like mine. I did not have that when I was starting out but it is so important to me now to be a role model for younger girls.

I was 12 years old when I fell in love with figure skating after watching the movie Ice Princess. I had to push myself back then because my father did not like me competing. He used to say it was not normal for a girl here. It was difficult for him to accept at the time. He felt it was against our traditions and culture for an Emirati girl to compete in sports. He was worried about what other people would think and because figure skating was a really new sport here, no one knew enough about it. He told me to practice it as a hobby instead. I was upset about it, but I understood his reasons. It took him a year to come round. We went as a family to Dubai to watch a figure skating competition and as I sat there cheering my friend, I think something clicked for him, where he realised there was nothing wrong with it and therefore no reason to stop me.

I was around 15 or 16 when I started getting serious about it as a competitive sport. I started training intensively and improving quickly. A coach spotted my potential and in 2012, I went to my first international competition, the European Cup in Canazei, Italy. I was 17, doing what I love to do, and went out there performing with my head covered – and my life has never been the same since. It never crossed my mind that I was making history, both as the first ever Emirati skater and the first figure skater to be covered, but there was a media explosion when I got a points deduction for an outfit violation because my head was covered. I wasn't mad about that – I was more angry that it was the first time they had ever seen it in the sport.

When I came home and was swamped by media attention, I knew I had a choice: I could either step down or decide to keep going as an ambassador for other women like me. I was still very young though and it is really hard to feel that much pressure and to be a role model at that age. There were so many negative things posted online and it is hard not to let those things affect you. But ultimately, I knew I had to make a difference and change things so that it wouldn’t happen again, either to myself or anyone else.  At the next international competition in Hungary, I met officials from the International Skating Union and showed them my hijab. Once they could see it would not fall off when I was training and it was not a danger to me, they said there was nothing wrong with it. Now, when I or anyone else competes while covered, they will not have points deducted by the ISU anymore.

I have always said today's struggles are tomorrow's warm-up. I mean that in both a physical and metaphorical sense. People see figure skating as a very graceful sport but if you come to any of our practices, you will see us fall a million times, hard. On those days, those falls and jumps might seem really hard and like the end of the world but by the next day, they will just feel like a warm-up and be so much easier. You just have to keep pushing through those tough times because those are the days that will make you a better and a stronger person.

Then there is the metaphorical sense. I am the highest level figure skater here so there is no one really to look up to but I always try to look at the positive side of things. It makes me more determined because I want the sport to grow. There are so many other little girl skaters now who look up to me so I think I need to set the best example and just keep pushing and showing them there are going to be many different barriers and difficulties as it is a new sport here but that they don’t matter. You have to keep pushing and go through them all.

I did not anticipate being a role model at all. When I first started, it was just a hobby. I never imagined anything like this would ever happen. A lot of people might have given up when all these trials came along. There are still many days when I feel like I am done and that I not going to do this anymore. I get tired or certain situations upset me. But I have to stay strong and now if people are saying negative things, their criticism doesn’t affect me. In the beginning, the emotional part was harder but now it’s the physical part I have to overcome.

I still don’t have anyone here I can really look up to and it is still really hard to train here. Every day is a struggle because you need competition to pursue during training. During the summer I travel and train abroad because I need to be around other skaters who are better than me and will push me harder. Michelle Kwan is one of my favourites and I often go online to watch skating videos to encourage me to keep going.

But it is really important to me to set an example. I volunteer a lot in schools and take part in campaigns like the one called "what will they say about you?" Support is everything. Before, women in the UAE would not have thought of entering fields like sports but now you see them as ministers and in the highest positions in businesses.

No matter where you are in the world, girls always struggle a lot more than boys in the field of sports. Here it is a bit more difficult because it is still very new but it is getting so much better, especially now we have the Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy and the Sports Council backing us. It is a huge support network to girls in sports and very encouraging but it will take time. It is not something that will happen overnight. If I look back at just the last two years, the difference is huge. It’s amazing how fast things are changing. We have had a female weightlifter going to the Olympics. I have already been to an Olympic qualifier in a winter sport, another first for the UAE. Changes are afoot and more are to come. When I met Sheikha Fatima bin Hazza, she told me: “Your country is supporting you 100 per cent”. That meant a lot to me.

Pretty soon I won't be the only Emirati figure skater at this level. That makes me really happy because I'm not going to be skating forever. Eventually I'm going to stop so I need other people to take over. I want the sport to keep going, I don't want it to stop once I stop skating and the maximum retirement age is 30, which is only eight years away. For me it's really important to have the next generation getting into the sport. Personally, I'd love to make it to the Olympics one day. As for my family, they are so supportive now. My father actually opened the first official club in the UAE, the Emirates Skating Club, and my mother is part of the skating federation here. It has become a huge family affair and just goes to show how much can change in only a few years.