Ice Princess Zahra Lari – An Example for Women of Faith

By Ashley McGuire

She’s been called the “Ice Princess in the Hijab.” And, I think she rocks. Zahra Lari is a 17-year-old Olympic figure-skating hopeful from the United Arab Emirates. And you can’t miss her because she wears a black hijab instead of sparkly hair clips and nylon pants instead of the characteristic shiny nude tights. I love seeing a Muslim woman as a competitive athlete. I just love it. I was crushed when the Iranian women’s soccer team was disqualified from the Olympics because of their headscarves.

I thought it was misogynistic to tell those women, already living under a regime that is restrictive to women, that their dream was off-limits simply because they were lawful Iranian women covering their heads. The images of those strong women, humiliated and crying on the field, was devastating.

As a non-Muslim, I have my own mixed views about the hjiab. I don’t understand why a woman would have to cover her hair to be modest. But I have also seen and met Muslim women who embrace the headscarf or the hijab who have a twinkle in their eyes and a freedom in their spirit that must come from shielding oneself from our grasping, hyper-sexualized world.

And I know non-Catholics might look at my faith’s teaching against artificial contraception, for example, as backwards and oppressive, as many rush to label the hijab. But I am grateful and appreciative towards those who try to understand, or at least recognize that I find freedom and dignity in the choice to obey that teaching.

As women of faith, we owe each other understanding and support in our choices that may defy the culture’s terms for our empowerment. It is our right to follow our consciences and make religious choices. And whether the state tries to take that right away through the law, or whether society tries to shame us away from our rights, women of faith should be allies in defending one another’s right to religious choice.

Zahra Lari could have run away from her family and defied the hijab. She probably would have become some feminist hero for doing so. But I think she is a feminist hero nonetheless. She became the first woman in the world to compete in international figure skating in a hijab. In my book, that is more noteworthy than being the first woman to land a quadruple axel. Because that takes a kind of courage that stirs only the deepest part of the soul. She made a choice that would no doubt engender scrutiny from the ultra-conservative religious community that doesn’t want to see a woman dancing on skates and from the liberal pundits who don’t like seeing women in a Muslim headcovering.

Guts, my friends. Guts.

Speaking of her ambition, Lari recently said, “In my country women don’t do much sport and even less figure skating. . . . I want to encourage girls from the Emirates and the Gulf to achieve their dream too and not to let anyone tell them not to do sport, not only figure skating but all sports.” And defending her hijab, she said, “I skate with the hijab, my costume is in line with Islamic tradition.”

Her defense was refreshingly simple and straightforward, almost as if to say, “I don’t really owe you an explanation.”

Zahra Lari exemplifies to the world that you can be a practicing Muslim woman who is competitive, ambitious, and bold. That is a good example for all women of faith, particularly in a world that increasingly views religion as incompatible with female strength and empowerment.

Lari brought to mind the 1980s classic movie, Chariots of Fire. The film centers around two athletes: Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian who runs for the express purpose of glorifying God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome anti-Semitism. Both men refuse to compromise their faith for the sport, and they are better athletes because of it.

Whether she intended it or not, Zahra Lari has brought Chariots of Fire to the rink. But she is a woman in a part of the world where women are still barred from many opportunities. And a Muslim in a time when anti-Muslim sentiment runs strong. She has brought Chariots of Fire to a whole new level.

So rock on, Ms. Lari.

Ashley McGuire is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of AltMuslimah’s sister site,, and a fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. This article originally appeared in AltMuslimah.


    Ashley McGuire has written so well about Zahra Lali. I wish to let AShley know that the Hijab that pious Muslim women chose to wear do it to seek Allah’s (All Praises be for Him) and for sake of Allah alone. Allah has prescribed Hijab for women to safeguard their respect and modesty and the best piety for a woman is to cover their beauty and that means their whole body . However even a Hijab combined with appropriate loose clothing is good enough if a woman choses not to wear a Burqa. The hair of women adds to their tremendous beauty and can attract attention from roving eyes of unrelated men who may begin to covet the women . The women help prevent such sins from occuring if they cover themselves up. Allah’s bestows tremendous rewards on the pious women who cover up. Even a tight body fitting dress is not advisable because that reveals the shape of a woman’s body and generates desires in men. May Allah guide Zahra and give her success both in this World and in the here after.

  • AWA

    Since you are a Christian though, let’s remember that in the Bible, Corinthians 11:” But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.”

    Modest dress and head coverings are not just an “islamic thing”. Look at Mary, Jesus’ mother: She looked quite “Muslim” right? Well it just so happens that she is one of the most respected women in history for Muslims and an example for the women to follow. You’ll notice that practicing Jewish women also cover their head also, as well as certain Christian sects, like the Amish women.

    This is not an attack on what you’ve written but rather to the general stereotypes that the average person who follows the media and doesn’t “have time” to read religious texts has. I’m not sure why the media invents lies and claims that the head covering is a symbol of “restriction” and “oppression” for Muslim women. The UAE, especially, is not an oppressive society for women… actually, for the practicing Muslim families, the women are taken care of and protected like queens and have so many more rights than non Muslim women. You’ll never hear THAT in the media though. Why don’t they attack Jewish or Christian (Amish and other sects) women who covered their head too? The fact remains that modesty is a defining quality in Islam, which sets the believers apart from the rest. Hijab is not only a head covering, but it is supposed to cover a woman’s beauty, so as to not attract other mens’ attention. That includes her chest, behind, curves, shape of legs, etc. Hijab even includes proper behavior and manners. Prancing around on ice skates to music in a tight outfit, even if her hair is covered, is not the best example of a Muslim woman according to Islam, because many of the “rules” are broken here. She, of course, is free to do whatever she wants, but it should not be done as a representation of Islam and as a role model for Muslim women, because she’s not. Before everybody takes her side, supports her, and feels they are worthy of criticizing religion, they should first start by studying their own Book and then Book of the religion they are criticizing. I’m pretty sure that many opinions and standpoints would quickly change.

  • Mehreen

    great article about a stunning role model!