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.
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, AltCatholicah.com, and a fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. This article originally appeared in AltMuslimah.