Muslim weightlifter's wish to wear modest clothing triggers rules debate
Kulsoom Abdullah covers her body except for her hands and face.
June 9th, 2011
04:21 PM ET

Muslim weightlifter's wish to wear modest clothing triggers rules debate

By Josh Levs, CNN

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) - Kulsoom Abdullah is a 35-year-old with a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering. But it's her passion outside of work that has put her at the center of a debate - one that could affect athletic competitions worldwide, even the Olympics.

Later this month, the International Weightlifting Federation will take up the question of whether Abdullah may take part in officially sanctioned tournaments while keeping her entire body covered, aside from her hands and face, in keeping with her Muslim faith.

"It's what I believe in. It's what I've chosen to do," Abdullah tells CNN of her decision to wear modest garb. "I've always dressed this way publicly."

Abdullah is not an Olympic athlete, but enjoys lifting weights. She can deadlift 245 pounds (111 kg) and get up 105 pounds (47.5 kg) in the snatch, in which the competitor lifts the barbell from the floor to over her head in a single motion. She likes to compete with other women in her weight class - she generally weighs in the 106-pound (48 kg) or 117-pound (53 kg) classifications.

"I guess it's empowering," she says. "There's a lot of technique involved, so someone who's this big muscular person - it's possible I could lift more than they do. There's speed and timing to it - you have to be explosive. I think it's great just for confidence building ... I guess I got hooked."

The Atlanta resident wants to take part in tournaments in the United States, including one coming up in July. But USA Weightlifting informed her that those events are governed by IWF rules. And those rules preclude her dressing in keeping with her beliefs.

Abdullah generally wears loose, long pants past the ankles, a long-sleeve, fitted shirt with a loose T-shirt over it, and a hijab, or head scarf, covering her hair.

The outfits - officially called "costumes" - worn at competitions must be collarless and must not cover the elbows or knees, according to the IWF's technical and competition rules.

The IWF constitution also states that no distinction is made among individuals based on religion.

Mark Jones, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee - which oversees USA Weightlifting and many other sports - explained part of the challenge is that judges need to see that a competitor's elbows and knees are locked during a lift.

But the USOC also understands the dilemma Abdullah faces. After CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations - a Washington-based group that advocates for Muslims and Muslim causes - contacted the USOC on Wednesday, Jones said, his group reached out to the IWF.

"I think their (CAIR's) language is to 'advocate' on the athlete's behalf with the international federation, and we have done that," Jones told CNN. "The Olympic movement is all about the universal values of equality. We value that greatly, but we also respect the rules of sport - especially those set forth for competitive reasons. So we're looking to see if there's some way to accommodate - not just this one particular athlete," he said, adding, "this is an issue that has some wider implications."

The International Weightlifting Federation has agreed to include the issue on the agenda of its next meeting, later this month in Malaysia, Jones said. The group's technical committee will hold a debate, and then present a recommendation to the IWF board, Jones said.

"Awesome!" Abdullah responded, when CNN informed her Thursday of these developments. "That's wonderful."

The news came after months of pushing for change, she said. In April, USA Weightlifting responded to an e-mail from her, explaining that it had to reject her request due to IWF rules. In that e-mail, there was no suggestion that the group or the USOC might take up the issue with the IWF.

John Duff, CEO of USA Weightlifting, issued a statement Thursday reiterating that the organization abides by the IWF rules on uniforms, and that the "issue has been brought to the attention of the IWF and the IWF Technical Committee has agreed to place the matter on the agenda of the next meeting, which will take place on June 26 in Penang, Malaysia, for consideration."

USA Weightlifting and the International Weightlifting Federation did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Abdullah says she understands the need to make sure she isn't wearing anything under her clothes to give her a competitive advantage. She says judges could check to make sure she is not wearing something on her elbows, for example, that might help her.

And she says she's willing to wear a "snug" shirt - though not skin tight - underneath a loose singlet, so judges could "see that there's lockout" in her arms when she does her lifts.

Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR, which sent out a news release about Abdullah on Wednesday, praised the USOC Thursday for taking action.

"It sounds like they've really done exactly what we asked them to do, which is advocate on behalf of this Muslim athlete," Hooper said.

"The ultimate result is a very reasonable compromise that allows the Muslim athlete to follow her religious beliefs and practices and maintain the legitimate rules and policies of Olympics and sports in general."

While Abdullah was happy to hear the IWF will consider her situation, there is no guarantee the IWF will alter its rules.

Although there were no immediate, organized protests against the USOC's decision to bring Abdullah's case to the IWF, USOC spokesman Jones said his agency has received messages from people opposing any change in the rules. He did not characterize what the messages said or how many there were.

Numerous athletic agencies have faced similar questions in the past and, in some cases, have determined that allowing special clothing violates fairness or equality among all contestants.

FIFA, the international federation governing soccer, recently refused to allow Iran's women's soccer team to wear headscarves while playing in an Olympic qualifying round in Amman, Jordan.

Abdullah told CNN her effort is not just about herself. "I should at least try," she said, "if not for me then maybe for other women who - if they have my faith or another faith - dress a certain way."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Islam • Sports

soundoff (515 Responses)
  1. HellYeah!

    I think she looks totally bad-ass in that get up! I bet she's lifting that weight using the dark side of the force!!!

    June 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  2. Julie

    I feel compelled to say that this is one of the most trivial and stupid news stories I've ever read. I mean just from every angle. First off – weightlifting is kind of a dopey sport really. Second off – why do they care what she wears? And third off Why are black Islamic-sanctioned clothes more modest than a pair of ordinary pants, shirt and babushka?
    Always some brainless fuss over something. If the woman wants to participate in a dumb sport and make it and herself look even dumber by wearing some dumb religious costume let her.
    That's it. I can't no more. I want a drink.
    Computer – OFF!

    June 9, 2011 at 8:34 pm |

      Pour me one also! That confluence of so many streams of stupid just screams to be submerged under a margarita tsunami.

      June 9, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Carl

      What have you done today.......???????

      June 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • donzooan

      dumb religious costume?
      get a freaking life!!!

      June 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • conventgirl

      Julie, are you having a bad day?

      This obviously intelligent woman has found something that makes her feel good about herself, might want to compete and is looking into if this is a possibility or not.

      Why are you into a knot about it?? What has it got to do with you?

      June 9, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Kulsoom Abdullah

      I don't know what Julie did today, but I took a chunk of metal, picked it up, then put it down in the same spot. Then I did it again. It's really important, you know, moving that chunk of metal so that it never goes anywhere. World peace and a cure to cancer will come of it, no doubt about it. Very important. And it's much harder to do while wearing a silly hat that respects my invisible friend. Very very important. You need a Ph.D. for that.

      Oh, I did it a whole bunch more, between prayers. That's what I did today. Very important, worthy of national news. Much better than Julie did.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Monica Miller

      I happen to know this woman personally, and I also happen to train at a Crossfit like she does. You show your ignorance by knowing absolutely nothing about the speed, power, skill and agility it takes to perform these Olympic lifts. They take years to perfect. She has entered a few local meets, done well and would like to continue to move up in competing This is a big deal, she is an amazing athlete and intelligent woman. I feel sorry for you, and for other people who strike out so hatefully towards things and people they don't know. You would never say this to her face, or any other stranger. Be decent, be kind, be compassionate. Isn't there already enough hate in the world? And for the record I don't agree with the Muslim dress, but it is required of their religion.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  3. Joe

    "All Muslim women are oppressed and held at a position below that of their husbands."
    The woman has a PhD in electrical and computer science. And, she can deadlife her husband. Enough said.

    June 9, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • David Johnson

      But, it is her belief. It is what she believes is the will of her god. I see no reason that she should not be allowed to compete in the garb she is comfortable in. As long as the garb does not give the wearer an advantage, what is the harm?


      June 9, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Mohamed

      Absolutely wrong. Women in Islam are given their rights to speak and push their own beliefs. They got morals and values, the same as men. That's why you can see someone like this athlete, which is well-educated, apparently has a self-esteem pushing her for such advocate with no fears cause she got a belief !

      June 9, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • donzooan

      whats I say is you are one ignorant ass!!!

      June 9, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  4. WakeUp


    June 9, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  5. Mark from Middle River

    You know, I gotta agree ... she looks very very cute. Not quite ready to convert from Christianity to Islam, but .... maybe just date 🙂

    June 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  6. Amihan

    Cut holes in the areas of the elbows and knees!....then the body will be covered, minus elbows and knees like the rules require!

    June 9, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  7. KoolKeith


    June 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  8. GSA

    I'm sure they will come up with a solution that works for all. I think that almost all of her compet-itiors will not care what she wears as long as it meets the requirements to keep the compet-ition fair and equal.
    Some of the compet-itors i'm sure will complain regardless, like some on this board i'm betting that thay just don't like Muslims in general and are probably worried they will get beat by someone that wears the full covering.
    @Billy Bob Joe Ray Earl – awesome posts, hilarious and you make a good point. To the rest of you crybabies, watch out they are coming for you, lol.

    June 9, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  9. Convert to Islam or the Puppy Dies ! ! !

    Yes, the world needs to obey religions and their kooky supersti-tions in every respect, abandoning the existing standards for religions that will not alter their standards at all. It's not like the sport had been going on long before they got involved or anything.

    OBEY! OBEY!!!

    June 9, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  10. frank

    Do they have a synchronized swimming team? I'd watch that.

    June 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Firenado

    The bigger picture, I'm a Christian and I admire her convictions towards her beliefs. I hope there's a compromise ie. she wears a dark spandex like body suit so the judges can see her elbows and knees are locked, or she compromises fully for the sake of sport.

    June 9, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  12. Frogist

    You know what... they found a compromise! Good for them! I didn't think that was physically possible to find a way to have Abdullah compete AND be faithful in her fashion. But I was wrong. Maybe they can find a compromise for the footballers too. Hooray progress!

    June 9, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  13. Reality

    Solving the problem in less that 100 words by posting the following in all newspapers at all athletic events and on the doors of all mosques, churches and synagogues:




    Added details upon request.

    June 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      is it Ground Hog Day, again?

      June 9, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • diersesis

      Reality-Is there not a comment you can make in your own words? It is like Cut & Paste are your new toys.

      July 6, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  14. frank

    Would hit!

    June 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  15. Punkass

    Everyone follows the same rules regardless of race or religon. Its disgusting to think that everyone has to adhere to the rules, and has, even though Im sure many didnt want to and now because a muslim wants to make a change the IWF is considering it? Sad, very sad. What that says is, everyones beliefs dont matter except for muslims. They are allowed to change the rules in every sport despite the fact that the Koran never mentions this clothing or that it is required.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  16. Yakobi.

    Here's the thing–nowhere does her religion require her to dress like that. It's HER CHOICE. If she's not willing to follow IWF rules, then tough.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Punkass


      June 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • asad

      It does, dressing modestly should go just beyond religion... And her religion does require her to dress modestly

      June 9, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  17. Lee

    As long as the clothes don't give her any advantage, who cares?

    If her religion required her to use a system of pulleys while lifting weights, then I would object.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  18. Balloon

    I think her religious beliefs are "weighing in" and adding to her burdens. Yet people often cling to their beliefs and prefer the oppressive weight instead of seeking to think freely, like people who are afraid to go outside or give up a teddy bear.
    If she wants to wear special clothing, one might wonder why there's any concern at all if the clothing is not a safety hazard or something disagreeable like that. It's hardly any different than wearing sweatpants, etc. anyway, so what's the problem?

    June 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  19. Reef

    That's right Sister keep representing. You don't have to take your clothing off just to fit into a society that don't respect women anyway. We in the USA have not value on how women should present themselves. A

    June 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Speaking of sisters ...
      If this were a nun in a traditional habit, would there be a problem ?

      June 9, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • derp

      Yes of course, Islam is so respectful of women.

      June 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  20. lowell

    It seems to me that you work within the CULTURE you live in, instead of CHANGING the culture to FIT your beliefs.....
    MUSLIM COUNTRIES like Saudi Arabia.
    Where Christians can't even bring a bible in to the country.
    I say we stop this slippery slope to becoming an Islamic Caliphate here in America now.

    June 9, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Lee

      Is that you, Glenn Beck? As long as the Christian Right doesn't destroy the wall of separation, our secular government will be just fine.

      June 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • seamoney

      Ah, but that's why we're better! People have the right to religiously express themselves in most anyway they see fit!

      June 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Billy Bob Joe Ray Earl

      That's right! STOP the MOSLEMS! When will they realize that we are not a "melting pot" nation? It's not like our forefathers fled to this country to practice their OWN beliefs, free from religious tyranny! Gosh darn it, we came to this country and the first thing we did was FIT IN to the culture that ALREADY EXISTED. We donned feathers and war paints and started chanting around the TOTEM POLE...when will these UN-AMERICAN MOSLEMS realize that this is NOT the land of the FREE??? Don't let them fool you...they may be only 1% of the total US population but they are here to start an Islamic Caliphate the likes of which you'll never see in Canada, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Spain and all the other western countries that the MOSLEMS have no interest in taking over as much as they want to control our great land. Even the ones who were born here and pretend to be patriotic, including the ones that died on 9/11/2001. It's all an ACT people!

      June 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.