Two Emirati women said that the little support they received when pursuing their dreams fuelled their determination to succeed in western or male-dominated fields.
Speaking at a session on Women’s Leadership in Sports and Tourism at the Global Summit of Women in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, Emirati race car driver Amna Al Qubaisi and figure skater Zahra Lari both said that the key to success was to simply never give up.
Both Ms Al Qubaisi and Ms Lari were the first women to make names for themselves in the Middle East in race car driving and figure skating, both showing an interest in their sport from a young age.
Catching the bug early
“I started gymnastics at the age of six or five and then one day in 2009 I saw my dad racing," Ms Al Qubaisi said.
"I was nine years old at that time and he was racing in a GT Three but I was never really interested until he invited a few drivers to the house and they were having conversations about racing.”
It was then the passion was sparked, and she began her career with kart racing, continuing even after a crash that caused those close to her to encourage a career in ballet instead.
“I had to go to the hospital and I had a back sprain and at that moment, my dad looked at me and asked me, do you still want to continue or do you want to stop? I was like, no, I want to continue," she said.
"This is something that I have to continue. I want to show the world that we are strong. It doesn't matter if I crashed or anything — that will not stop me from continuing to prove myself and to pursue my passion. I take every race as my last."
Ms Al Qubaisi became the first female Arab to participate at the Rotax Max Challenge World Finals in 2017 and the first Arab female to win the UAE RMC Championship.
As she progressed through the motor racing ranks, success followed, including the 2018 Italian F4 Championship with Prema.
Her advice to other women is, “keep persisting — keep pushing past all the noise — what people say about you, what people think about you, as long as you're happy, results will come naturally. So don't look at the time and the years and the age gap of you doing something, just do what makes you happy."
One of the most common challenges that irked Ms Al Qubaisi was constantly coming up against stereotypes, not just about women, but anyone from the region.
“Being from the Middle East, I was representing the region, so people in Europe would say it was because I was a walking bank, or that my father owns an oil company — these were ridiculous assumptions. So I had to prove to them that we [women] are just like any other driver, we fight, and we try to find the sponsor that we deserve to be on the racetrack.”
Challenges on the ice
At her first international skating stint at the European Cup in Canazei, Italy, Ms Lari lost points for skating while wearing her headscarf.
“It wasn’t an easy journey,” she said.
She fell in love with figure skating after watching the Ice Princesses when she was 12 years old, although it was a far more gruelling schedule than she anticipated.
“My mom was bringing me in for ice skating before school. So I was out on the ice at 4.30 in the morning. I was there until seven in the morning, every single day and then I would go to school — after school at about 3pm, I was back on the ice till evening time. And I would repeat that every single day," Ms Lari said.
Not only did she soon become the world’s first figure skater to compete in a hijab, she was also the UAE’s first figure skater to compete in qualification events for the Winter Olympics in 2018, and leading the UAE to become the first Arab state to join the International Skating Union.
"[Training] was very tiring. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to give up, especially during those bad days, but my mom was always there to encourage me, support me, to tell me that it's OK to have bad days. You just have to keep moving forward and keep going on.”
Ms Lari has since championed female representation in sports in the Middle East, and worked to build the women's sporting community regionally. She is also founder and chief executive of Emirates Skating Club.
“So many people in the world will tell you that you cannot do something — just prove them wrong — show them that you can with your actions and never change who you are for anyone,” she said.