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. Van

    Why do we allow religion as a valid excuse for not following rules or laws?." Ms. Abdullah feels like wearing a scarf, etc., maybe I feel like dressing up in a Spongebob constume. If the judges demanded that I must make a religious profession to validate my choice of dress, I'd sue the shiite out of them.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  2. NJ

    What an enormous amount of passion! This woman is smart, physically fit, and has definite beliefs and passion. Extraordinary! I only wish that I find a woman with those attributes. Very appealing.
    I wish you the best.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  3. Brett

    Isn't nose piercing against Islam?

    June 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. Thanks for the laugh

    Hahahaha, this just made my morning. Thanks CNN for posting this ridiculous article. I hope articles to follow include "Burqa Swimming", "Hijab Beach Volleyball" and "Niqab Cycling". It'd even be nice to see "Burqa Shooting" or "Burqa Biathlon" (x-country skiing + rifle shooting) but I'm pretty sure if the Air Marshalls don't take them down, MI5 will.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Jacob

      You're a disgrace to our species.

      June 10, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • MaryInBoise

      Ha ha ha. You're so funny. Not.

      June 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Not quite

      Clearly you don't understand sarcasm. The rules are in place not because they are discriminatory but because it is essential for the judges to see the athletes knees and elbows. There are uniforms in all sports and no exceptions are made. Golfers are required to wear pants. You won't find an Irish man saying he must be allowed to wear a traditional kilt on the golf course. Just doesn't happen. Play by the rules. Period.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Not quite

      Use your brain! The MI5 comment was relevant because the summer Olympics are held in London in 2012. Morons.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  5. Sara

    Big deal if the US olympic teams have to alter their standards again. First it was black people. They had to figure out they were intelligent enough to compete in sports. Now its dangerous to wear a scarf or its considered backward. Cancer patients wear scarves. Swimmers cover their hair to cut down on friction in the water. So let me get this straight, as a future health professional, if I'm on call to cover a traumatic injured patient from a car accident, will the patient say, " I can't see her hair, I'll wait for another surgeon." get over yourselves. Does anyone say anything to these fat women with muffin tops running around here with clothes that are too tight? Because I find it offensive. Throw a Catholic nun up there in that picture. Throw a hat, an Amish bonnet, a turban, a yarmulke, a scarf on her head. It doesn't affect the sport. If you can lift, you can lift, if you can't, go home. Do you tell your taxi drivers to take their Sikh turbans off because it affects their driving skills? Get real people.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Rueben


      You clearly don't know a thing about weightlifting.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • mohammed

      thank u for sticking up for a HUMAN... NOW AS FOR ALL THE BAD COMMENTS,NOT COOL AT ALL...as a muslim im sure Abdullah is saying thank god for the good comments and the bad...WE PUT ALLAH (WHICH MEANS "GOD") FIRST NO MATTER WHAT and this is why ISLAM is growing so fast even in the states so read the facts about whats really in the Quran and then talk ur trash BUT BEWARE B/C U WONT BE TALKING BAD HECK UD PROB CONVERT

      June 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  6. Marie Kidman


    June 10, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  7. WeLove You



    🙂 😀

    June 10, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  8. WeLove You


    June 10, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  9. so stupid

    NOBODY else in the world but a muslim would do this. Everyone else would just accept rules for the rules they are. But a muslim? Nope, against my religion, not happening now bend over and do things how I say my religion owns you!

    June 10, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • sbak

      actually, that's why freedom of religion exists. More people than just Muslims want to be able to practice their religion freely, without inhibition. Islam is strict, so naturally it is harder to practice freely.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • so stupid

      Freedom of religion isnt me having to change for your needs, its you changing to fit the rules required for whatever you are doing.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  10. woodrow

    If she truly wants to compete, she will figure out how to do it. But if her religion is so strict, and she believes in it, maybe she shouldn't compete at all.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  11. Drew

    The whole issue must boil down to practicality or injury. Does a headscarf affect her ability to lift weights? I wouldn't think so. So, what's the big deal there? But, if the headscarf would be worn for other events it could pose a problem. Imagine a scarf getting tangled in another girl's hair during a soccer match. Or, imagine trying to swim in the Olympics. Use common sense here.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • xtos

      Somebody obviously didn't read the article.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  12. Altee11

    Does Islam really require her to cover up?

    June 10, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Katie

      Debatable. There's really only 1 passage in the Koran that even mentions it, and it says women AND men should dress modestly, but nothing specifically about a hijab.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Muslim

      Yes islam requires women to cover up... We put GOd before anything we do. Islam keeps their women respectful and modest and secure her dignity unlike western women who are near naked in public and can care less, (such respect for oneself) unlike others who think it is themselves who control everything? do they forget who created this universe and what his laws and guidance are, most of mankind is in a state of innovation and loss and had forgot the true message and soon you will understand and it will be too late then.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Chris

      Which part of their dignity is retained when you cut their ears and noses off for refusing marriage proposals? How is their honor restored when you throw acid in their faces? And which part of "honor killings" is for the women's dignity?

      June 10, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Sa`id

      Does the Creator know what is best for His creation? Listen to the Creator and you will be fine.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • icu

      @Muslim, Islam does not require anyone to cover up. Outdated medieval middle-eastern culture dictates that. So quit lying to yourself and others that you are being some devout muslim when it comes to attire. While you're at it, keep your sermon to yourself as well. If you don't like western culture, who cares??? We don't ask for nor do we want your opinion on our culture or our women.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • gsj

      No Islam does not require women to cover up. Allah has made it abundantly clear in the Quran that if He Himself hasn't forbidden something, man shouldn't impose it upon themselves. If she wants to compete she needs to show her elbows and knees unless they are going to come up with some type of computerized monitoring system to check for locked elbows and knees.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • samina

      No, Islam is much more progressive as a religion just like any other faith. Its the lack of understanding and misinterpretations that lead to many problems we see around. Islam as a religion is meant to evolve naturally and allows new interpretations according to changing times but unfortunately, majority of our religious scholars rigidly follow literal meaning of verses and have very successfully convinced majority muslims that this is what religion is all about..how sad!

      June 10, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • sbak

      @Chris...wow, you speak as if all of that is part of Islam...when you can find a context-supported passage in the Qur'an that sanctions that, you may be eligible to speak with such confidence.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • mohammed


      June 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  13. Katie

    I understand the importance of freedom of religion, but if you choose to believe in a religion that restricts your life in some ways, then that is your choice and you must face all the consequences of it.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  14. Suepy

    NO MEANS NO!....There are whole countries that wont mind....go there....sooooo tired of hearing "MY RELIGION" dont hear fro christians,dont hear from Jews....enough get out ! My two US Marines would be happy to escort you.....

    June 10, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Katie

      Maybe you don't hear it from Christians and Jews, but they're definitely saying it. Orthodox Jewish men can't touch women they're not married to. A Christian girl in my class couldn't take part in halloween parties at school because her religion thought it was the devil's holiday. Just to name a few.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Joseph

      what do you mean christian and jews never complain, they always do, go and review old histories...

      June 10, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  15. a man who cees 2morow

    so absured..........2morrow another muslim girl wud stand n say" i wanna do *orn but wearing my hijab and all clothes...

    June 10, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • doc_rf

      if someone wants to watch that kind of *orn, what's your problem?

      June 10, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  16. Milton @ CC, FL

    If you told me that the gear gives her an unfair advantage in some way, then heck no. How about this? Why not just "cut out" the parts the judges need to see and cover them with sheer material or a sport mesh so that the knees and elbows can be exposed , yet still covered? jus' sayin'...

    June 10, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  17. Connie

    If an exception is made for one, it must be made for all. Then the officials would have to judge the clothing of each contestant as to proper fit, possibly even the type of fabric. Organizations should not have to change rules that favor equality to accommodate the laws of any particular religion.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  18. twiddly

    Ridiculous! No accommodation should be made for any religion.
    The middle east (and Islam) needs to get out of the middle ages.
    This woman is "proud" to be inferior to men, who have no such silly restrictions.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Phil

      Does she have a right to her beliefs, or not? I bet you claim to be an advocate for liberty...

      June 10, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Chris

      Religious freedom doesn't mean the entire world has to cater to your beliefs. If your religious beliefs prevent you from participating according to the rules, then don't participate. Going to the Olympic games is not a 'human right'.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • sbak

      this comment is so silly. middle ages? anything that's misunderstood just gets labeled as backward without a second thought. go read a book about islam and women, by a muslim, and then make such authoritative remarks.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  19. girls rcool


    June 10, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • doc_rf

      Ravi Zacharias is as much a bigot as he accuses the Mullahs to be

      June 10, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  20. Ahson

    I agree to K's post in reply to Billy Bob, im a muslim and i can clearly see the hypocrisy in this case. And in no way should the rules be changed based on religion alone, specially since they may be used to abuse the sport. So long as the changes only have a cosmetic effect they should be welcomed, people have a right to wear what they want. But if it breaks a rule or creates a possibility of foul play then its pointless to even debate.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:12 am |
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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.