Zahra Lari: Ice Princess in a Hijab

With explicit integrity, absolute devotion, and boundless energy, 21-year-old Zahra Lari wants to leave an indelible print for her country by representing the UAE as the first figure skater in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. She is a strong bright woman who has defied the odds to become a lauded leader, and perhaps that’s why Nike chose her to represent their new product: “Nike Pro Hijab.”

In this exclusive interview, the “Ice Princess” talks to Wassila Ayoub about the prospects of making history at the 2018 Olympic Games, the sparked controversy of Nike’s Pro Hijab, and her mission to shatter stereotypes attached to conservative Muslim athletes.

It’s not the norm for a person growing up in a warm climate to participate in a winter sport. What enticed you to become a figure skater?
When I was 12 years old, I saw a Disney movie entitled ‘Ice Princess’ and I immediately fell in love with it and had my Dad take me to have skating lessons. Since then, I have been skating and learning more and growing stronger in this sport.

So far, you’ve competed in major international competitions in places like Slovakia, Hungary, and Italy. As a young Muslim woman, what kind of worldwide influence do you think you can have? Is there a pressure that comes with being a conservative Muslim?
I try my best to be a good example and role model for young Muslim girls and I can already see the growth of this sport in this region. We now have so many skaters in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. I think the great work of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy and their support of me and hundreds of other ladies, plays a key role in this development of this sport and so many other sports available for ladies today.

The moment you step on the ice to compete, what goes through your head?
When I first step on ice and even before I step on ice, I am always very nervous. It seems that with each passing year, I get more and more nervous. I’ve come to realize that this is normal and that I just need to be confident in myself and that I and my body know what to do on the ice. The majority of failures are not due to ability but due to the mind. I think the sport of figure skating is so technical and specific with the judging system, that the skater really must concentrate on their elements throughout their program. If you lose focus, you will not be able to get your jumps or spins correct. This is an Olympic sport and all athletes must learn to focus and at the same time perform. However, I still absolutely love it and give my all to it.

After terrible falls, what drives you to get back on your skates?
The falls can be difficult and always painful, but one should never be a quitter. With sports,  you must have the drive to keep going. For every skater there will always be falls but its those falls that teach us our mistakes. When learning a new jump you will fall hundreds of times until one day you get it and land it perfectly. That feeling of success is what will keep you always getting up and keep trying.

By next year, Nike will launch its “Pro Hijab.” You were granted an early released version. What do you think of the product?
I was thrilled and a bit emotional to see Nike, the leading brand in sport and fitness, prototyping a hijab. But I cannot lie, I was really hesitant when I first saw it. I’ve tries so many different hijabs for performance, and with how fast I spin on the ice and the training, so few of them actually work for me. But once I put it on and took it for a spin on the ice, I was blown away by the fit and the lightweight feel. I absolutely love it and am so honored to be a part of this launch.

There has been mixed reactions when it comes to the product. Some people have even threatened to boycott the brand. They claim the hijab is a symbol of the oppression of women. What message do you have for these people?
I’ve come to learn that there will always be people that criticize and don’t understand what we are doing and how we actually live. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion but that doesn’t make them correct. I am female; I am Muslim; I have rights; I have freedoms; I have equality; I am from the desert and I play a winter sport. As I have always said, “I wish for all young women to find their passion…To not let obstacles seem like mountains. To strive for their own betterment and to not see the differences in people but to only see the likenesses”
this is what I wish for everyone…male and female.

By releasing the “Pro Hijab,” do you feel that Nike is inspiring more conservative women girls to get involved in sports?
I think we should all be encouraging everyone to be more active and healthy. We all have only one body, we should take care of it. I’m proud of all that Nike does for women in sport.

You are on the path to becoming the first Emirates athlete to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Do you feel your presence at the Olympics will help pave the way for aspiring athletes who wear the hijab?
If I qualify, I will be the happiest person alive, if I don’t, I will immediately start preparing for Winter Olympics 2022. I think that any women that compete in a sport with hijab are a great example of the diversity of this world and that the hijab does not hold you back from living your dreams.

The Nike Ad features five successful Muslim professional athletes pursing their athletic dreams while a voice asks, “What will they say about you?” How would you answer the Ad’s rhetorical question?
A few years ago I would have said, “they will say that this girl shouldn’t be out doing this, she should be at home” but now I say, “this girl is amazing, beautiful, strong, powerful, an inspiration and a success.”

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