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How the World's First Figure Skater to Compete in a Hijab Overcame Prejudice

One wouldn’t expect to find a figure skater in the desert, but Zahra Lari, from the United Arab Emirates is just that.

At 12 years old, Lari was inspired to hit the ice after watching the Disney movie “Ice Princess,” CNN reported.

A decade later, Lari captured international attention as the world’s first skater to participate in international competitions wearing a hijab. All over the internet, Lari was celebrated as the “Ice Princess in the Hijab.”

But Lari, the national figure skating champion of the UAE is so much more than that.

“I don’t really like that nickname,” Lari told Procter & Gamble. “I want people to focus on my skating, not what I’m wearing.”

Lari, a P&G-sponsored athlete, is an ambassador for the latest installment of P&G’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign, called “Love Over Bias” and credits her mother’s support with helping her overcome gender and religious stereotypes and biases throughout her career.

Ever since the start of her professional skating career, Zahra has had to overcome discrimination and bias. In 2012, at her first major competition, judges docked points from Lari’s score because of her hijab, which they deemed an unapproved “costume prop,” according to the New York Times.

After the competition, Lari met with International Skating Union (ISU) officials to advocate that the rules around competition attire be clarified — the rules have since been amended.

“That was a huge deal and a very proud moment for me,” Lari said. “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.”

While many people have celebrated Lari for sporting a hijab in the ice rink, others have been less supportive, criticizing her on social media, leaving Islamophobic comments, and even sending death threats to the skater.

“To have an absolute stranger say negative things about your child was just shocking,” Roquiya Lari, Zahra’s mother, told Procter & Gamble. “I didn’t want it to bother her...My role is to get her out of that bad way of thinking, get her to joke and spend some non-skating time together.”

Zahra and her family have even faced negativity at home.

“People see [figure skating] as dancing for an audience, rather than sport,” she told the Financial Times. She added that her father’s and uncles’ colleagues had criticized them over her participation in the sport. “They say, ‘Why do you allow your daughter to do that?’”

Zahra told the Financial Times that even her dad had taken some convincing initially, but her passion for the sport won him over, and Zahra has thrived with the support of both her parents.

While she won’t be competing in next month’s Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Zahra still dreams of representing her country at the Olympics some day.

But as the first international professional figure skater to wear a hijab, Lari has achieved so much. 

“I’m most proud of Zahra not for her skating [but] for who she is,” Roquiya said. “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.”