Behind the Bias: Getting to Know Zahra Lari

The Emirati figure skater is much more than the hijab she wears.

By the time they are 12 years old, most competitive figure skaters are already competing on the national or international stage, but that’s when Olympic hopeful Zahra Lari, a P&G-sponsored athlete, first put on her skates and hit the ice. Over the past 10 years, she’s gone from first-time skater to international sensation. Her quick rise in the skating world hasn’t been without some challenges, though. As the first skater to compete internationally wearing a hijab – a traditional Muslim headscarf – Zahra has had to deal with bias directly.

“People did kind of stare in the beginning because I was covered,” says the 22-year-old National Champion of the United Arab Emirates. When she returned home from her first international competition, she saw photos all over the Internet of her competing – along with the headline “The Ice Princess in the Hijab.”

“I don’t really like that nickname,” she says. “I want people to focus on my skating, not what I’m wearing.” But people did, and many of them didn’t like what they saw. People from all over the world commented on her photos and videos, and some made anti-Muslim comments and even death threats. Zahra also faced negative reactions from people in her home country and other Muslims around the world.

“It doesn’t make any sense that because of your religion you can’t compete in certain sports,” she says. “And if a male can do a sport, a female can do it, too.”

In addition to the anonymous comments Zahra received about her headscarf, competition judges deducted points from her score because her hijab wasn’t considered an approved part of her costume. Zahra, who was still a new international skater, stood up for herself when she and her mother petitioned for a rules change. Ultimately, they won, and the rules were amended.

“That was a huge deal and a very proud moment for me,” Zahra says. “But I wasn’t really thinking of myself. I was thinking of the girls who are going to start skating, and I don’t want them to be judged for how they are dressed.”

Zahra’s mom has always been her biggest supporter. Roquiya Lari drove her daughter to the rink for 3 a.m. practices and now travels with her around the world for competitions. But, most importantly, she’s provided Zahra the love and support to overcome any bias or unfair treatment she’s faced.


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“To have an absolute stranger say negative things about your child was just shocking,” Roquiya says. “I didn’t want it to bother her. I didn’t want it to put her down. I didn’t want it to break her.” Most of the time, dealing with that kind of negativity or the other stresses of being a competitive athlete isn’t something the Laris confront head on. “When she’s had a rough day, you can see the stress on her face,” Roquiya says. “My role is to get her out of that bad way of thinking, get her to joke and spend some non-skating time together.”

While Zahra is focused on competing, she’s also a full-time college student and an advocate for sports in the United Arab Emirates. She talks at schools around the country to educate others about how girls can get more involved in sports and to gain more exposure for ice skating.

“It’s still a new sport here,” she says. “This is a desert country and [figure skating] is a winter sport, so people just don’t know about it.” Even telling friends or teachers about her practice schedule sometimes provokes funny looks. “They say, ‘You’ve been doing this for 10 years; why do you still have to practice?’ They must not think I’m very good!” But she is. And she’s dedicated to getting better and being one of the best. No matter how well she competes on ice, her mom will still be her number one fan.

“I’m most proud of Zahra not for her skating [but] for who she is,” Roquiya says. “She’s an inspiration to all girls and women in the world who want to accomplish something despite barriers or struggles. Zahra inspires everyone to fight for their right, to fight for their ability and to fight for their place in the world like they deserve.”

For the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, Zahra has partnered with P&G to help encourage people all over the world to see each other through a mom’s eyes and embrace the idea of Love Over Bias.

Imagine if the world could see what a mom sees. #LoveOverBias

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I want my daughter to feel that she is amazing no matter what she chooses to do or be in her life. We may not be of a different religion or color of skin, but we are low-income and that gets its own problems. Keep staying strong and know that the image you put out is only as strong as you feel inside.

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