Emirati Figure Skater Zahra Lari Is Inspiring Future Generations Through Her First Children’s Book

6 min read

Ahead of her debut book launch at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari tells MOJEH about embarking on new adventures – both on, and off the ice

Under the glare of a dramatic spotlight, Zahra Lari slowly skates onto the ice rink. Her face is radiant, brightened with hot pink eyeshadow and bordered in a magenta-coloured hijab. As the Instrumental music reaches a booming crescendo Zahra performs a series of pirouettes, and the purple skirt of her watercolour-patterned dress spins and flutters. The scene suddenly switches to the desert, where she is swathed in black tulle tiers, twirling whimsically on traditional Arabian red rugs. “Beauty is courage. It’s the courage to dream,” states Zahra as the video – a campaign for Sephora about redefining beauty – comes to a close.

The 30-second clip is the result of two full days of shooting on the rink and in the desert – but Zahra is no stranger to rigorous training ahead of performances, or to re-defining beauty. The 28-year-old five-time UAE national champion is the world’s first-ever Emirati competitive figure skater, and as a hijabi woman, she has shattered stereotypes about what a professional figure skater should look like. She has won medals in international competitions around the world, from Iceland to Japan, starred in Nike’s iconic Pro Hijab campaign, and has been the subject of stories in CNN, Forbes, The New York Times and more that are both perplexed and enthralled by the sight of a headscarf on international ice rinks. But this month, Zahra is telling her story in her own words, and on her own terms. Her debut children’s book, Not Yet: The Story of an Unstoppable Skater releases on February 6, and on February 3, she will take to the stage at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to talk about the book with her co-author, Hadley Davis.

Not Yet! The Story of an Unstoppable Skater hits shelves on 6 February. (Dress, Carolina Herrera)

Hadley, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote the script for Disney’s Ice Princess – a film that marked a turning point in Zahra’s life more than a decade ago, inspiring her to start taking skating lessons in Abu Dhabi. Although her father was initially hesitant to allow her to skate competitively due to social and cultural traditions, he quickly became one of her biggest supporters, and is a focal figure in her book. “My mom was physically there with me all the time anywhere I went, but there was that side of my dad that people don’t know about, how much he was supporting me, and I really wanted people to see that,” she tells MOJEH.

Completed with vibrant illustrations by Jordanian-American artist Sara Alfageeh and published by Scholastic, Not Yet tells the story of Zahra’s early figure skating journey and touches on themes of representation, perseverance and empowerment. After all, Zahra’s path to becoming a competitive figure skater was not as smooth as the rinks she skates on, or as glamourous as the crystal-adorned dresses she skates in. She defeated the odds in becoming a visibly-Muslim figure skater on international ice rinks, and worked tirelessly to do so. It’s a period of her life marked by years of intense training and travel, starting when she was a student. She recalls her mother taking her to the rink at 4:30 in the morning, waiting with her there, then taking her to school, going back home to prepare lunch, then picking her up and taking her back to the rink, before dropping her back to school. Then after school, she would go to the rink once again. “It’s a huge sacrifice and commitment from the parents,” says Zahra, whose passion and dedication to the sport took her to competitions across the world, where she represented the UAE and became a global role model for aspiring female Muslim athletes.

Disney’s Ice Princess sparked Zahra’s interest for ice skating and the rest, as they say, is record-breaking history. (Dress, Onori)

At the 2012 European Cup in Canazei, Italy, she became the first Arab, hijab-wearing figure skater to perform in front of an international judging panel – who ultimately deducted points from her score due to her headscarf, which they said violated official costume rules. But that didn’t deter Zahra, who campaigned for the International Skating Union (ISU) to reform its rules, and also helped secure the UAE’s permanent membership in the union. Her presence on the ice has helped broaden mindsets and widen the scope of representation for visibly-Muslim athletes – a theme Zahra touches on in her book, in which a younger version of herself skates across pages and says “not yet” to naysayers who tell her to stop pursuing her dream.

While full of memorable moments, Zahra says that her lifestyle at the peak of her figure skating career was chaotic and stressful. “Even though most people might not know it, there’s a lot of pressure,” she says. “Trying to manage all of the social media and all of the different campaigns I was doing, plus the training, it all became just too much.” When Abu Dhabi went into lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ice rink was closed for a year, giving Zahra some time off from what had become an unsustainable, frenzied cycle of training and traveling. “I started to realise, even if I don’t compete, I can still do what I love,” she says. “I love figure skating so much and it will always be part of my life – I still have a lot more to give.” Zahra is now the CEO of the Emirates Skating Club – the first formally recognised skating club in the UAE, which her father opened to support her early training. She is also the president of the Figure Skating Committee under the UAE Winter Sports Federation. “I’m in charge of developing the sport, making sure it’s growing in the right direction, and ensuring the safety of the athletes,” says Zahra, who continues to make strides in inspiring others to skate. “Some just want to do it for fun – we have kids that are three or four years old, and we even have a woman who is 67 years old. Ice skating is for everyone; it’s not always about competition,” she says.

Zahra hopes to inspire young athletes to fight for their dreams, no matter the challenges. (Dress, SemSem)

Zahra also got married during the pandemic, and now has a one-year-old daughter who she spends time with on weekdays, while the young skaters who she trains are at school. On weekends meanwhile, she spends all day on the ice. For while she may not be competing for medals anymore, Zahra is by no means slowing her pace in expanding the ice-skating landscape in the UAE. Last year, the Emirates Skating Club opened its first Dubai branch in Sports City and will be hosting the Skate Emirates competition on February 9. Zahra will be there, not only cheering on her skaters, but also, signing copies of her new book.

Writing Not Yet gave Zahra the opportunity to reflect on the myriad ways in which she has become a role model for future generations of skaters, and Muslim girls seeking careers in spaces they assumed were out of reach. “The main thing that really hit me is how much I’ve already inspired so many kids throughout my journey, because when you’re in it you’re so focused that you forget that you’re inspiring people,” she says. “I want to tell them they can all chase their dreams. That it’s not going to come easy, but work hard, trust yourself and just go for it – I think that’s my main message throughout this book.” Zahra says that she never planned on penning her story or becoming an author, but when asked if this book is a one-off project or if she would like to write more, she immediately answers – “more”.

“There’s something so special about children’s books – that connection between the parent and the kids when reading,” she says. “It’s magical.” Zahra clutches an early review copy of Not Yet with pride and excitement. It may not be a gold medal, but this book is every bit as meaningful to the legacy she is building. Zahra will be discussing Not Yet with Davis at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on February 3, three days ahead of the book’s international release. Book tickets here.

Read Next: Shoe Designer Sophia Webster on Butterflies And Becoming An Author

  • Interview by Hafsa Lodi
  • Photographed by Ausra Osipaviciute