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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Female athletes to inspire younger generations at Abu Dhabi conference 

Abu Dhabi will host a female sports conference next week

Houriya Al Tahri, 31, coaches the senior women's national football team. She says despite cultural reservations, her family were supportive of her dreams to play football at a national level.  Satish Kumar for The National
Houriya Al Tahri, 31, coaches the senior women's national football team. She says despite cultural reservations, her family were supportive of her dreams to play football at a national level. Satish Kumar for The National

From chasing their dreams on neighbourhood streets to representing their country at the international level, female athletes will be sharing their journey with the world during a sports conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

The International Conference of Sports for Women 2017, by the Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, will attract an array of athletes to talk about their journey and the struggles they faced to reach their goals.

“I started playing football in schools and streets with my brother,” said Houriya Al Tahri, a 31-year-old Emirati from Dubai. “When women’s football started in the UAE, it was in Abu Dhabi so I decided to move there after high school to get a job to rely on myself.”

Mr Al Tahri’s coaches supported her dream to play at the national level and told them that her presence on the team would help usher the next generation of female athletes.

Now the head coach of the senior women’s national football team in the Emirates, Ms Al Tahri witnessed many changes in the sport from a young age.

“There were only seven Emirati girls playing in 2004 and now we reached around 2,300 players,” she said. “It’s a great accomplishment. There was only one club, not even a league, but today we have all age groups with training centres – we never had any of this.”

Despite cultural reservations against women playing sports in the UAE, Ms Al Tahri was fortunate to get the full support of her family pushing her to pursue her dreams beyond what was generally accepted at the time.

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“For them, it was normal because I was a kid. In the UAE, the culture is you play in school but then around 16, girls shouldn’t play. But with my family, it was different because it became a habit and it’s the one thing I love to do,” she said.

Her advice to young Emirati women wishing to follow that path is to be persistent saying “the first struggle you always face is you,”

Persistence was what Zahra Lahri, the 22-year old from Abu Dhabi, needed to achieve her goal of becoming a figure skater, which was met with resistance.

After watching the movie Ice Princess ten years ago, Ms Lahri’s love for skating began and was further nurtured when her dad took her to Zayed Sports City ice rink, where she began training the very next day.

However, it was also her father who two years later also advised her to keep skating only as a hobby, and nothing more.

“I was getting older and culturally it wasn’t acceptable in those days,” she said. “Nobody knew what figure skating was so he stopped me from competing but once he saw how much I loved it, he became very supportive.”

In fact, Ms Lahri’s grew so supportive of his daughter’s passion that he ended up opening the Emirates Skating Club, where his wife is member.

The 22-year-old will speak about breaking barriers to reach your goals.

“Awareness was the biggest struggle for me and having society understand what the sport is,” Ms Lahri said. “Girls weren’t really supportive at that time, but with the help of the Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, we raised awareness about women in sports. A lot more women now are in sports and quite a few in figure skating.”

She said as a result, the number of Emirati female athletes is growing.

Among them is Amna Al Haddad, who was the first Arab woman to compete in the Crossfit Asia Regionals in 2012, and an Emirati Olympic weightlifter who won the Arab Woman Award in Sports last year.

“You see many local girls doing hockey, football and basketball and a lot of them want to be able to go to the Olympics,” Ms Al Lahri said. “It’s becoming very common now to find Emirati women trying to accomplish so many things in sports,” said Ms Lahri.

May Khalil, a 61-year-old Lebanese, will speak about her own experience with the Beirut Marathon, which she started in 2003.

“I used to be a long-distance marathon runner almost all my life until I had a huge accident in 2001 while training to do a marathon, and I was hit by a minibus,” she said.

She slipped into a 10-day coma and was hospitalised for two years, undergoing 40 surgeries to date.

But that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dream.

“The minute I woke up, I thought of organising a marathon,” she said. “It might sound strange but to me, it was an objective to look forward to and probably the values I learnt from running I found at the time I needed the most. So the determination, perseverance and commitment and setting an objective at that time helped me to stay in focus and overcome it.”

She thought if she could not run herself, she would want others to.

“I’m able to walk but I physically can no longer run,” she said. “But the determination I had made all these challenges seem rather small and manageable at that time. The marathon started at a time when people weren’t even familiar with the term and now you find thousands of people running all over the streets so our mission was to move and unite people through running.”

This year’s conference in its fourth edition is held under the theme of Inspiring Generations. “The way we look at it is that it’s both, forward-thinking and also reflective of generations and role models that will be at the conference talking about their journeys and how they’ve already inspired existing generations,” Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza bin Zayed, Chairwoman of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy said. She said that “ICSW proposes ideas and discussions not just exclusive to the Middle East and the UAE but relevant to the women sports’ platform globally’. "It’s the only conference of its kind in the region of this calibre which in turn, allows us to place Abu Dhabi on the global map of female sports”, she commented on the strategic importance of the ICSW.

The conference will have six panels to engage conversations and eight workshops to serve on a more educational and interactive level. A sports photography competition will be hosted too with Getty Images open for local Emirati female photographers.

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