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. unowhoitsme

    She goes by the sport's rules or find a different sport....sorry, but religion has no business being in sports!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Jason

      Man, that's gotta be one of the single-most ridiculous things I've ever seen typed openly in public. The only thing worse is posts made by FairGarden. Now, I am not one to throw this punch and not explain why, so here, let me enlighten you.

      Nearly all coaches, and athletes pray before, during and after events, is a pretty good place to start and show that religion is an integral part of sports. Next I think I will move into the fact that before religion, people wore next to nothing in the heat and during their sporting events. It was very common to see womens breasts, and mens penis's during sporting events. It was only once the Abrahamic religions started coming about that standards of normal every day dress mattered. The modesty of religion in general is what shaped our normal standards of every day society. So essentially what you're saying is, all sports should be played naked, unless protective gear is necessary... Get your simple mind off the internet and go travel the world

      June 9, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • JD

      You're are an idiot. Religion has everything to do with sports. Do some reading and make some observations about what goes on in sporting events prior to opening you dumb mouth.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • Rush Limbaugh's Dream Date with Chaz Bono

      Yes, you are absolutely right: Religion has everything to do with sports . . . except for how they are played and how to practice for them and the strategy and the tactics and the uniforms and the gear and the plays and the techniques and the shoes and the locker rooms and the rules and how they were created and why they were created and who created them and how to coach them. Except for those little things, religion indeed has everthing to do with sports.

      Let me list the all the many ways religion has to do with sports:

      June 9, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • Acaraho

      I'm with you. Not only does religion have nothing to do with sports but God could care less what athletes do. That's why so many who pray still lose.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • paperjihad

      For religious people, everything has a religious aspect.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • unowhoitsme

      TO JASON: "Prayer" before a game...what a religious joke! Asking God to protect you when you choose to go into a potentially dangerous zone, and asking Him to win a stupid game. Is this what your religious prayers consists of?...Pretty selfish and shallow! You need to get off your computer and spend a lot more time praying for the things that really matter and turn off the sports channel when you do it.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  2. bob

    I bet shes got a rockin bod under all that gear!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Kyle Overboard

      @bob It's people like you with you, "I bet shes got a rockin bod under all that gear!"... that fuel her decision to remain covered and modest... so that she can prevent thoughts like that, coming from people like you.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • Believer

      Your comment proves her point on dressing. Although I do not agree with her religion, I do agree with her right not to dress immodestly.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Medieval Weightlifter

      Couldn't agree with Kyle Overboard anymore!

      June 9, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • Mob

      @ Bob,
      I am a muslim and I know why women dress up modestly. Because they don't want to be appreciated for thier body. She wants to be reconginzed for who she is and for what she does, not for her body. Also she is following a proper and peaceful American way of getting things dones!!! Which is Requesting and Asking.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • zolman

      Mob what a pile of "C**P". Muslim women dress that way not because of modesity. They dress that way because the have been indoctrinated buy a religion where men want to dominate women. Modesity has nothing to do with it.

      June 10, 2011 at 5:49 am |
  3. Jason

    Oh joy, another concession to Islam in the making. Before you know it...Americans across the country will get to experience the full benefits of Shariah law. I can see it how...driver's license photos in face covering niqabs, re-segregation of the genders, oh yeah, it's coming...

    June 9, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Jules

      Muslims aren't the only religious group to have issues with how athetes are to dress. I grew up a Pentocostal Christian in a public and played softball, basketball, and gym with a skirt. My mom's only concession was to not make me wear a t-shirt under my wide shoulder uniform tops because they were so wide they were kind of like cap sleeves. It didn't hurt anyone, allowed for freedom of movement, and no one ever seemed to have a problem with it.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  4. B.Slider

    I think she should cover her entire face...for all of our sakes.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Jason

      What are you talking about exactly? If you had shown me the picture I would have thought she was 25. Certainly not 35.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  5. B.Slider

    I think that she should have to wear the same gear as everybody else does. If it was good enough for ABDULLAH THE BUTCHER, then it should be good enough for her!!!!!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  6. James Black


    June 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  7. TheKid

    Form-fitting spandex/Under Armour long sleeve top and full leggings. Judges would be able to see her knees and elbows clearly, and she would not be going against her religious obligations.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Trish Carlos

      I agree with you... with something relatively form-fitting, it would be obvious if she was using any braces, and she'd still be able to compete without dishonoring her belief system. Hopefully the IWF will be willing to compromise... I understand why FIFA wouldn't allow the hijabs (I don't see how they could stay on with all the fast motion or not interfere with head movements), but the costumes many of the weightlifters wear are a bit ridiculous, lol. I'm not muslim and don't have any modesty limits, but even so, I wouldn't want to wear spandex like that 😛 Alternatively, I don't see why the judges presiding over the event can't just check her through the clothes in public view to see there's nothing that would give her the advantage (I mean TSA has to do the "feel-you-up" routine at the airport regardless of your belief system, and no one looks down upon that)... that's if they can't just verify in the locker room or out of public sight that she doesn't have extra gear underneath. IMHO, too much red tape!

      June 9, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  8. Anthony

    Why can't the judges allow this young woman to compete without the foolishness?

    June 9, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  9. frank

    I...I...I think I'm in love with her...

    June 9, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • avi

      she's gotta leave her knees and elbows uncovered if she wants to compete. if not she can go join a "modest" weightlifting tournament where women are free of the horrors of having to expose such "provocative" body parts.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Leslie

      She reminds me of the character in Young Frankenstein dressed all in black.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  10. Dawg11bravo

    OMG, let the women compete who gives a poop if she wears that crap......seriously its like we have not advanced from jim crow at all sometimes....

    June 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  11. runinguy

    read the article before spouting off you morons. the issue at hand is that judges can't see her knees or elbows (something necessary in order to correctly judge a weightlifter).
    not that i give a s*** either way. after all, it is a pointless and selfish "sport" and her "garb" really is just a dumb medieval costume. THERE!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Kulsoom Abdullah

      Grand slam there, runinguy! Spot on on all counts. The costume does indeed keep the judges from knowing if the lift was properly completed.

      Actually, the costume predates the medeival period by centuries, so it would have to advance to be medeival.

      And it is a pointless and selfish sport, right down there with curling – okay, curling has the advantage of still being playable if you are ugly drunk. Okay, curling is BETTER if you are ugly drunk.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • NN

      I agree. they need to see the knees and arms to judge.
      besides, this costume business in relation to religions was meant as a way to control people thru conformity.
      we are born NAKED. so why are people so afraid of their own bodies? we don't need to see her privates or breasts for this. we all know what arms and legs look like. But oh my lets cover up-
      by the way, MEN created these rules, not women.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  12. John

    There should be no change in dress codes for any sports based on religion. We show up to compete and wear the required clothing or uniform. Period.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Why? If it does not give an advantage or disadvantage then what is the harm on her and the sporting body getting together and finding a way for her to compete?

      June 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • StraighUp_Texan

      Yes, we should all wear the 1970's nut huggers when we play basketball.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Texan, Don't you know we have laws against bringing up Disco, Bellbottoms, ^Hugger shorts and Afros... we have to protect the young generation from the horrors of the 70s. 😀

      June 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  13. amigay

    I for one and getting tired of people trying to change the rules to suit their whims. If she wants to compete then she plays by the rules.

    June 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • StraighUp_Texan

      she is not gaining an unfair advantage with these changes? So why should we not allow any variation in the dress?

      June 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • husna

      so what are the rules. guys can wear sweats and girls must wear mini shorts? she is following the rules of freedom of religion.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  14. Dora Smith

    I just reported for abuse the person who said, "assimilate or leave:.

    It's sure a good thing that person"s parents didn't have to conform to any such rule! America was never built on such a principle. Every new generation of immigrants has been considered to dress strangely, act strangely, worship wrongly. They insisted on it, too.

    June 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      "It's sure a good thing that person"s parents didn't have to conform to any such rule!"

      Dora, while it might have been a stupid post and not politically correct. One of the rules and rights are for folks to express themselves freely. CNN own the servers and the networks that support this blog but do we really want folks to only post what will not hurt folks feelings?

      Its one of those if you limit ones speech how long before someone attempts to limit yours?

      June 9, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Sam

      Gee, Dora, thanks for telling us what you did so that we can all admire what a great person you are. The problem is, you're wrong. America is called the "melting pot" because people did, in past generations, assimilate, rather than trying to get everyone to accept their old culture. My grandparents were Christians from Syria. They came here, learned English and expected their children to live by the rules of this country, like millions of other immigrants. I agree with amigray: I'm getting sick of people expecting the rules to be changed to suit there needs. If this woman can't play by the rules, she should stay home.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • Edward

      Do you expect us to thank you for trying to silence someone's freedom of speech? I think it odd that you think it fine you decide what is a good opinion and what is a bad opinion. Dora in chief, suppressor of opinions she disagrees with.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • JFritz

      I'm second generation too, Sam, on both sides, but different countries and religions. All of my grandparents were proud to be "American." My Syrian grandmother often spoke of how much women hated the veil in the old country. My Hungarian grandparents, and my Syrian ones, did not allow their children to speak the old country's languages. My own mother, when I asked, "What am I?" firmly stated, "American." Americans don't view women's hair or reasonably covered (or even unreasonably covered) bodies too tempting to view. I can't understand reverance for a deity that would impose such ridiculous rules on half its creation, or women who would embrace them. Does the creator of infinite universes really care if I cover my hair? Bodies are not shameful, but the men who create this nonsense are. Women of the West once wore those stupid nuns' habits, but they moved passed this nonsense. Ultra right wing garbage is loony in religion, as welll as politics–no matter what religion or party. American's of every religion, embrace the forward thinking that is this country's gift to the world. Move forward, women.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  15. Boscobear

    Change fpr Muslim women will only occur when they realize that wearing these outfits is a means by which Muslim men keep them in their place. She has the courage to want to do something that many Muslin men do not llike-she is deciding for herself what she wants to do. She needs to take the next step and meet the requirements of her sport. This is striking a blow against Muslim men telling Muslim women what they can/can't do!

    June 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • StraighUp_Texan

      Terrible analysis of the story. As a person, she is deciding what she wants to wear. Find something else to bark at.

      June 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  16. Hannah

    I don't care what she wears, this woman's my frickin hero.

    June 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  17. Dora Smith

    Let her alone. It's whether she can do the sport that matters, not what she wears. Besides a matter of freedom of religion.

    Frankly, I admire her modesty. And her insistence that dressing traditionally doesn't mean a woman has to be passive and useless.

    June 9, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Trainer617

      If the tables were turned and we had were to wear different garb to express our religious beliefs would Iran, Iraq or any of those countires respect our request? Apparently not. America always has to bend over backwards for those countries with no freedom of religious beliefs.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  18. txwtch67

    Good for her. Change it for all sports...I don't wanna see any more gamey, stringy, half naked chicks when I watch the tv. I may not go for the hijab, but as a society we could sure use a lil more modesty from us women. I'm tired of seeing other chicks udders...no wonder men are looking down on us instead of our eyes. We do it then have the audacity to be offended if we catch the guy looking at the goods. Well my mind is what I'm about.....my "assets" are my secret weapon I bring out at the right time.

    June 9, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  19. Carl

    I like that fact that she is willing to work with the governing body and she states its not just about her. Now for Julie, who states the sports is dopey, I bet your fitness is nowhere close to Kulsoom's. Also I support her because she is participating in an activity that I am sure the crazies feel she should not. You go girl, woman power!!!!!!!!!

    June 9, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  20. Alfredo

    Good for her. Woman are equals of men. No actually, women are superior!.. Just ask my mom and wife.....

    June 9, 2011 at 8:38 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.