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 in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.