The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a Persian Gulf state where temperatures soar as high as 48 degree Celsius (118.4 Fahrenheit) during summer, is famous for hosting the Formula 1, The Dubai World Cup horse race, camel races – and even international cricket and skydiving tournaments.
It is hard to imagine, however, that this desert country where heavy snowfall is considered a national phenomenon, could become the first Arab state to join the International Skating Union (ISU), which administrates ice skating sports.
But that’s exactly what has happened.
And it’s thanks to Zahra Lari, aged 22, who is not only the first skater from a Persian Gulf state to participate in international figure skating competitions, but also the first to do so wearing a headscarf.
If you think that pairing the ornate but revealing figure skating costume with a modest headscarf is unusual, you are not alone.
And that was not the only hurdle Lari faced when she started figure skating 10 years ago in her home emirate of Abu Dhabi.
“I began skating when I was 12 years old, after watching the Disney movie ‘Ice Princess’,” Lari tells CNN over email.
She was a student at the time, and recalls waking up at 4.30am to train before going to school, and then practicing again in the afternoon. Lari trained at the only rink in Abu Dhabi, located within Zayed Sports City.
In a conservative Muslim country, however, where Emirati women are expected to wear abayas – wide fitting robes – and headscarves in public, Lari performing routines in a tight-fitting figure skating outfit in front of men was not an easy task.
“My father felt that it went too much against our normal traditions and culture for a girl to compete in sports,” recalls Lari. At first, she decided not to skate competitively to avoid annoying her father.
“As a family, we went to competitions only to cheer for my friends that were competing.”
But after seeing his daughter’s enthusiasm for her colleagues on the ice rink, he gradually relented, and gave Lari permission to enter competitions.
“Now he is my biggest supporter,” she says.
The fashion question
Today when Lari competes in professional figure skating competitions she wears a modified version of the figure-skating outfit. See-through fabrics such as Lycra are replaced with opaque cloth, she covers her toned legs with thick leggings and wears a matching headscarf.
In 2012 at the European Cup in Canazei, Italy, Lari was the first Arab woman to figure skate in front of a professional international judging panel wearing a headscarf. The judges deducted points from her score for an outfit violation.
“I really don’t have any negative feelings towards this ruling,” says Lari. “The judges at that time had never seen someone compete with it so they really didn’t know how to score me.”
Subsequently, she campaigned the ISU to change its rules.
“The head of the ISU development at that time, requested to see me while I was in Hungary. He wanted to see the scarf and understand how safe it was on the ice,” recalls Lari.
Subsequently, at the Nebelhorn Trophy, in Germany, where Lari competed in September, officials were instructed not to consider the veil to violate Rule 501 of of the ISU Technical Rules, governing attire among other things.
That was a one-off ruling. The ISU told CNN via email that “assessment of the rule and whether it needs to be more specific for the future is ongoing.”
This year has been a landmark period for Lari.
In September, she competed in the qualifying games for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will take place in South Korea, although did not qualify.
“My goals go beyond being the first person to represent the UAE at a Winter Olympics,” she says. “I want to compete at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and the World Championships. These competitions are my current goal.”
In 2017, as her profile rose, she also participated in Nike’s online campaign, “What Will They Say About You?”, with a number of other Arab female athletes to encourage women in the region to push the boundaries when pursuing their dreams.
And while she is currently completing a degree in environment health and safety at Abu Dhabi University, her long-term dream is to become a figure skating trainer.
Making skating teams legitimate
Lari’s family have been reticent initially but today they are embedded in her career: she is managed by her mother, American-born Roquiya Cochran, who is also the CEO of the Emirates Skating Club, which was founded by Lari’s father, Fadhel.
“I never really decided to become her manager, it just happened. Since I am always with her, I have learned some of the ins and outs (of the sport),” says Cochran.
The Emirates Skating Club is the first formally recognized club in the country.
“While there are many unofficial figure skating teams throughout the UAE, no others are legitimate and legally recognized by the UAE authorities,” says Cochran.
“We are hoping to bring these teams on board to become legitimately registered and recognized teams so that they can have all of their rights and participate in international competitions.”
The skating club that Lari’s family founded now has 75 members – but there are still hurdles for budding ice skaters in the region.
“Unfortunately, we only have one ice rink in Abu Dhabi, and hockey has priority for the ice bookings,” says Lari. “For me, this is a struggle because it really makes my training difficult.
“As with any sport, it’s all quite scientific with regards to training times and muscle recovery. So, I really cannot train at my optimum level due to this conflict.”
But Lari remains positive about the future, and her message for others is simple.
“Train hard, stay focused, love it, and give it your all. It’s never too late to believe in yourself and accomplish your goals.”