Zahra Lari has garnered a lot of attention in recent weeks because of her new campaign with Nike following the release of their first ever 'pro-hijab'.
Lari is a 22 year old figure skater from the United Arab Emirates, and while this might seem far fetched - there are ice rinks in the middle of the desert, and she has taken full advantage of the amenities. She is the first professional figure skater for the UAE, representing them internationally, and has her sights currently set on qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Lari first made headlines when she became the first international figure skater to wear a hijab while competing. Religion being as conservative as it is the middle-east means that she and her family would face a lot of strife coming up, Zahra having made the decision to compete in a sport that is based on display and show, in tight sports gear. Defying the odds and pressure female athletes in the middle-east have to endure compared to their western counterparts, Lari is as impressive a role model as they come. SWAAY spoke to her about life as a pro-figure skater in the UAE and how it differs from the regular life a woman in the UAE.
How did you get into figure skating?
When I was 12, I watched a skating movie called "Ice Princess" and after watching it I fell in love with the sport. A few days later I started taking lessons.
Tell us a little about figure skating in the UAE?
When I first started skating it wasn't a popular sport, in fact people barely knew what it was, since it's a winter sport and we're in a desert country. Ever since I've been in the media and giving speeches to kids in schools it's starting to pick up. Every year the numbers are increasing and we have a lot of young talented Emirati skaters.
How did your parents react when you wanted to figure skate?
At first my mom was against it because she said that I must focus on my education since I was an honor roll student. She was also concerned that I would get injured. Since she said 'no', I went to my dad and asked him. Fortunately, he agreed and took me the next day to start lessons. My mom then became very supportive and has always been there, even at 4:30am practices! Once I started getting serious, my dad then started saying that I was getting older and should stop competing. I listened to him and didn't compete. When he realized how devastated I was, that there was really nothing wrong with me doing a sport and that I am being healthy, he relented and accepted. Now I am so lucky to have all of my family being very supportive.
What were the challenges you faced as a woman figure skating?
The biggest challenge was educating people about the sport. Everyone considered it dancing and not a sport, so I had to change their way of thinking about it.
What are the barriers of entry to the sport in the UAE?
The biggest barrier is that figure skating as a sport does not have a yearly budget to run. I am very lucky to have the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies sports academy's support and sponsorship. For the sport to grow and for other UAE nationals to compete internationally we need the financial support and a budget set for figure skating on a national level.
What was your training schedule like - were you along in your ambition to become internationally competitive?
The first 3 years I was only doing once a week 30 min lesson but I was still improving so fast that my coach said she needs more. So during school I was going before school to practice at 4:30am until 7am then go to school and be back on ice at 3pm until 6pm. A lot of people thought I was crazy but I'm very passionate and determined about figure skating. At the moment my training schedule defers from week to week and if I have competitions coming up or not and with my university schedule but I'm training 4 hours a day everyday and I also do gym at Adrenagy.
Was there much access to ice rinks?
I'm so thankful and blessed that my country is providing us with great facilities and good conditions to skate on. The only problem we face is ice time since we have public sessions and hockey running as well.
Figure skating is a sport that requires a fitted, figure hugging outfit - was there ever an issue with this at home?
I faced a lot of criticism about my outfits. I don't wear tights but I wear pants with my costumes. I try to make people aware that the only reason my costumes are fitted is so I don't harm myself during my skating. With all the movements, jumps, and tricks that we have to do, it's dangerous to have baggy clothes.
How does it it feel potentially being the first person to represent your country there?
It will make me so proud to be able to be the first person ever to represent my country in a Winter Olympics and to be able to raise the UAE flag.
Tell us a little about your aspirations to go to the Winter Olympics in 2018?
Every athletes dream is to go to the Olympics. I train hard everyday to be better than I was the day before and I realize that everyday we are getting closer and closer to the Olympics. If I don't make it to the 2018 Olympics I will go to the 2022. That is my goal and promise to myself.
How does your training / college life balance work?
I am fortunate that Abu Dhabi University is supportive and understanding of my journey. I have to skip a semester every year when it's competition season because of a lot of traveling and that unfortunately will make me finish university a bit later but it's worth it.
What are you studying?
Environmental health and safety.
Figure Skating is a uniquely artistic sport. Can you tell us a little about your performance philosophy?
Every performance I do has a story behind it; for example, my free skate this year was about refugees. When I have a story it's easier for me to connect to the performance and portray the character
What's been the reaction of people in your country?
At the beginning they didn't know what it was so I got a lot of questioning but now everyone is very supportive of what I do and they all believe in me. Of course I get some criticism but I don't pay attention to that.
How did the sponsorship with Nike arise - when did they approach you?
Since I started skating it was always my dream to be sponsored by Nike, so when they approached me I was so excited, happy and shocked that they chose me! It was an honor for me to be part of the "what will they say about you" campaign and also part of the Nike pro hijab.
"I'm very proud to be part of this journey and be a member of the Nike family." -Zahra
What is the shared value of the partnership?
We all want to show women that yes you can do a sport and yes you can be great at it. Never let anyone tell you that you can't. Just do it :)
What is your motto to live by?
My motto is: There will always be people not understanding you, people doubting you, people not believing in you; just trust yourself, have confidence and prove them wrong.
What would you say to aspiring female figure skaters in the UAE?
Work hard, give it 100% everyday, never give up and most important thing is to have fun.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."