For UAE figure skating star Zahra Lari, not every victory takes place out on the ice.
The trailblazing 23-year-old doesn't just have to pit herself against fierce competition from across the globe – she also has to battle her fair share of misconceptions in her bid to put Emirati women on the sporting map.
Being a natural on ice while hailing from a desert nation is enough to set her apart, but she also had to come back from the blow of being deducted points by judges – not for her footwork but for her headscarf.
Back in 2012 – when only a teenager – she became the first Arab woman to figure skate before a professional international judging panel while wearing the traditional attire.
Delight turned to despair when she was deducted points for a perceived outfit violation.
She campaigned for the rules to be changed and was subsequently allowed to wear her headscarf without fear of being marked down. It was a win as important as any podium place.
“The message I try to send to all Emirati women is just to try to break the stereotypes that people may still have.”
The UAE today celebates Emirati Women's Day and Ms Lari is proud to represent her country all over the world.
She believes Emirati women have had the chance to grow and be empowered in recent years - and she is happy to be part of the transformation.
Ms Lari admits that she still comes across stereotypes concerning the role of women in the UAE when she competes at international competitions.
“Some people tend to think that women in the UAE don’t do anything because they aren’t allowed to and just stay home while the men do everything. This is wrong and we are trying to show that it is not like that”
While skating she has been asked: “how does the UAE has an ice rink when it is a desert country".
"One time, I was asked if I go to the ice rink on a camel,” she said.
“That was the first year when I was competing internationally but now everyone knows the UAE and I don’t get such comments any more.”
At international competitions, the UAE team usually consists of just her. Ms Lari is the only Emirati figure skater qualified to compete at an Olympic level.
She was the first UAE national to qualify for the Winter Olympics.
Far from feeling alone, however, she draws strength from the kinship of her fellow athletes.
“But the support I get is huge from the other teams. When I go on the ice, the support is unbelievable,” she says
She is also an ambassador for the Special Olympics World Games, to be held in Abu Dhabi next year.
“I’m honoured to be part of it and it is an honour for it to be hosted here in the UAE and in Abu Dhabi in particular. The idea behind it and the vision of the UAE is to include everyone in society. The fact we can encourage people with disabilities, and show them they can do anything they want to do, is the main reason I want to be a part of it. I want them to show that they are amazing athletes and make them believe in themselves and show the world their abilities.”
She urges Emirati women to never give up on their dreams and to continue to pursue their passions.
She said: “I tell Emirati women to follow their dreams and to try to find that thing that they are really passionate about and to give it 100 per cent. There will be bad days and good days and on those bad days they have to think about why they love it and that will make them stronger in the future. Just follow your dreams and don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you love to do.”
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