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. Daniel

    You xenophobes are ridiculous. How would this impact your lives at all? If they can figure out a way to accommodate a custom shared by 1.6 billion people in the world that works for them, that's a good thing. If you don't see that you need to reevaluate your reasoning. None of you are idealogues until it gives you an excuse to bash Islam.

    June 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  2. dan

    I believe that man was born naked and thats my religion and if she gets to wear that crap then we can compete nude. No rules, tolerate everything. Stand for nothing.

    June 21, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  3. power of retribution

    Religion should not be in sports period..No hats for the jews..no cross for the Christians..no towels for the Hindus..no rags for the muzzies..why is it that there has not been an issue in all this time in sports..but now that we are focused on the muzzies these past 10 or so years..all the sudden they want compliance to their fath..how about letting folks read the bible in saudi arabia/..no?.how about non muslims who are actual citizens of their muslim dominated country not have to pay an infidel tax?..Why is it that we have to allow faith to ruin our lives and our sports..let her compete..but no exceptions that make Her different..We should all look the same on the field of sports...

    June 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Daniel

      If you hold your country to a higher standard than Saudi Arabia, this should not be an issue for you.

      June 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  4. Ken

    More garbage from the false religion. Islam making yet another aTTEMPT AT FORCING EVERYONE ELSE TO ACCEPT THEIR SATANIC BELIEF SYSTEM.

    June 19, 2011 at 1:54 am |
  5. Dom Polski

    No one is keeping her from competing except her. She can follow the technical rules and compete this afternoon. The singlet rule is obviously designed to allow the judges to see her elbows, knees, and buttocks so that her compliance with the technical rules can be evaluated. Muslim women are free to compete just like every other person that wants to comply with the established technical rules of the sport.

    But I don't think that's your question. You want to know why we should make a person who doesn't wish to follow the rules if they offend her sensibilities follow them anyway. Right?

    June 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm |

    I'd rather see her naked!

    June 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  7. Aezel

    So wait we are supposed to bend the rules for your religion?

    All I have to say about that I think Pat Condell puts very well:


    June 12, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • WhatTimeIsIt



      June 12, 2011 at 2:14 am |
    • Joe

      Why do you find a problem with this? why did you make this a debate over religion when she didn't make it one? She is making a perfectly polite personal request. People are going to follow religious prescriptions(whatever floats their boat) even if you don't think see any value to it. Why do you care? It doesn't help anything. Don't pick problems with people who aren't imposing anything, thats just rude.

      June 12, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • Aezel

      It IS a debate over religion. It is a debate over whether every single time someone with bat-s*** crazy beliefs enters into the public arena, if we should have to constantly bend over backward to accommodate their asinine belief set.

      As pointed out in that video I linked. She already gets plenty of accommodation by simply not facing constant ridicule, now she wants the rules changed for her benefit. What a joke.

      June 12, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Sean

      I think she could break you over her knee.

      June 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  8. Brunp


    In the area of employment, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs. It doesn't mean changing rules, excusing bad performance, allowing unfairness or disadvantage to others, or creating a safety risk-just seeing if the accommodation is reasonable. This isn't an employment situation, but it seems to me that the same principle could be followed here.

    June 11, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  9. Moe Badderman

    The unthinking toadies who croak "rules are rules" and whine about "excuses" are just being good citizens in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

    June 11, 2011 at 4:22 am |
  10. Sir Digby Chicken Cesar the Fifth

    I do believe that pole she's holding is horizontal. Somebody had better fix that right away!

    June 11, 2011 at 1:03 am |
  11. Ahmed Saeed Babar

    dressing is not a problem Rules may be rules, but they are not always correct. Hence, the ability to review and change them. This woman is smart, physically fit, and has definite beliefs and passion.if she can do it in covered body no one should stop her She is not a teen ager or mentally disturbed women she got her doctorate in electrical and computer. Islam strictly orders for proper dressing and this is for mankind
    i support her with all my will

    June 10, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Ban Islam

      Of course you support her, cause you are a muslim and just like her you are trying to push your faith on everybody else. I say go back to Saudi Arabia and follow your dress code there

      June 22, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  12. John Richardson

    This issue is about number 6.918,176,347 on my list of things to worry about, But one thing I have to object to is the verbiage of those extolling the virtue of "modesty" in the twisted sense of shame about the human body. While the hyperse-xualization of the body that has happened in the west is regrettable in many ways, the cure for that is the development of a more mature appreciation and acceptance of the body, not its banishment. And yes, this applies to males and females, and not just the young and the beautiful.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • KP

      ..... Are you some sort of android or something? Because I don't think I've seen such an intelligent comment on the internet since its inception...

      June 11, 2011 at 12:43 am |
  13. Nagela

    I give her a lot of props for standing up for her beliefs! She is smart, fit, and has an enormous amount of passion! Best of luck!

    June 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  14. Electric Larry

    I'm okay with her wearing whatever outfit she wants. Seriously. It's a good precedent in case some hot Wiccan witches decide their religion demands that they compete in the nude. It would make some of these stupid sports a whole lot more interesting.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • She Turned Me Into A Newt

      There really are not enough nude Wiccan witches competing in sports these days.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Sir Digby Chicken Cesar the Fifth

      Yeah! Where are all the nude Wiccan witches? Why aren't they going out for more sports? Inquiring minds want to know!

      June 11, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  15. Reality

    Reminds one of the following:----------------–

    From Sir Salman Rushdie's book "Satanic Verses", p. 376, paperback issue – for those 1 billion Muslims to read as they are forbidden to purchase or read said book:

    One of the passages that prompted the crazy Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against Sir Rushdie:

    Mahound = Mohammed
    Gibreel = Gabriel

    "The faithful lived by lawlessness, but in those years Mahound – or should one say the Archangel Gibreel? – should one say Al-Lah? – became obsessed by law.

    Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every da-mn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one's behind.

    It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation – the recitation- told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which se-xual positions had received divine sanction, so that they leamed that so-domy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top.

    Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not be scratched no matter how unbearably they might itch.

    He vetoed the consumption of prawns, those bizarre other-worldly creatures which no member of the faithful had ever seen, and required animals to be killed slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives, for it is only at the moment of death that living creatures understand that life has been real, and not a sort of dream.

    And Gibreel the archangel specified the manner in which a man should be buried, and how his property should be divided, so that Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman.

    This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organization and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if noncorporeal, God."

    June 10, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  16. Duncan

    First, Rules are rules. Second why do people start something and then expect the rules to conform to them. If I compete, I need to wear a singlet, why make exceptions. If I want a PhD, I have to go to school, I can't say my religions says I can't attend class just let me do it my way. Amercia imagine if we keep giving in on even the small things we will no longer be know as " the land of the free and the home of the brave" but the home of do whatever som politically correct person wants us all to....

    June 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • paperjihad


      Rules may be rules, but they are not always correct. Hence, the ability to review and change them.

      June 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Jihadjihad


      You can change your rules, too! Lets just change all the rules of the entire World so that they suit you. How would you like that? What changes have Muslims made for Westerners? How many changes have Westerns made to not "offend" muslims?

      June 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Jihadjihad – I kinda understand where you are coming from. In some ways I agree, their countries are not open to change for us in the West. In many ways I am 99% that they should conform to us.

      The thing is that I fear is that I am holding these feelings or views because I want the Muslims to feel how we would feel if we went too one of their countries. In that it would be a bit of me looking for revenge.

      Two problems with that. First is that I should not live to seek vengance on folks. Second problem would be, what if the girl was not from the Middle East. What if she was born and rasied third or fouth generation American. For something as small as if a weightlifter wanted to wear something like the girl's outfit in the article, what is driving the resistance.

      If it were not just to get "back" at Muslims then the majority of the post here would echo the line of thought that the judges and the refs need to make sure she is bending and lifting correctly. Sorta someone saying that they disagreed with her Faith but I was more concerned about her wellbeing.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  17. ROBIN

    why cant she just wear something form fitting on her legs and arms so the judges can see if they are locked or not – i would think loose flowing clothing at a weight lifting contest would be dangerous – u wouldnt want to get tripped up and lose balance with a 245 lb weight

    June 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  18. Jackson

    Your beliefs are just that, YOUR beliefs and not anyone else's. The world does not need to conform to you because of your beliefs in an imaginary friend.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  19. WeLoveYou


    June 10, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  20. Marie Kidman


    June 10, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Aezel

      Not sure exactly what it is posting this picture of a butterfly along with one of the most simplistic, infantile, badly written and just plain crappy midi recording of some terrible drivel music along with it but please stop. That music is worse than a Casio keyboard on demo mode.

      June 12, 2011 at 12:29 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.