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. Ruva

    Our freedom ends when the freedom of other begin...

    June 9, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • Mike Hater

      What freedom?

      June 10, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  2. Just a question

    I dreally don't know so I'm asking if all the judges need to see is the elbows and knees why can't she just wear an outfit that shows just the elbows and knees? Is there a muslim rule that says 100% coverage, but she doesn't cover her face so that's not being followed, so where is the line? What about wearing the same outfit with spandex over the elbows and knees but looser elsewhere?

    June 9, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Lollypop

      That is what the woman suggested. That she could wear something where the judges could still verify that the lift was legit.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  3. PR

    If she can lift the weight who cares what the Fxxk she wears! You go girl!

    June 9, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  4. Topkatt

    Is this still America? Let the lady wear what she is comfortable with and back off!! Man it sucks how Christians think the world revolves around them.....

    June 9, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  5. laura

    I know this woman, and I have worked out with her many times in our non-airconditioned gym. we wear as little as possible in the Georgia summer heat for our very intense workouts and she is always covered no matter how hot it is. She is an amazing weight lifter and should be able to honor her faith and her sport. she does not juge the rest of us who work out in little clothing or force her faith on others, ever. I am disgusted by some of the posts on this blog and how judgemental so many are about this woman who has a different faith or lifestyle than some but is judged by many on this blog. Even one comment about the sport of swimming. . .have you not seen the full body swim wear worn in the olympics?

    June 9, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  6. blahh

    no where in the Koran does it say women must wear the veil/head scarf or completely cover their bodies. it just says women should dress modestly. think about that. i think whoever wrote the Koran was making a statement about women who dressed like tramps in 5th century Arabia.

    June 9, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • paperjihad

      It doesn't have to be in the Qur'an to be considered necessary. There is also prophet sunna and scholar consensus.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • Frank jones


      Qur'an 33:59 "Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and all Muslim women to draw cloaks and veils all over their bodies (screening themselves completely except for one or two eyes to see the way). That will be better."

      Qur'an 4:15 "If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, take the evidence of four witnesses from amongst you against them; if they testify, confine them to houses until death [by starvation] claims them."

      Bukhari:V3B48N826 "The Prophet said, 'Isn't the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?' The women said, 'Yes.' He said, 'This is because of the deficiency of a woman's mind.'"

      June 9, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  7. mike

    I agree with the idea of her being allowed to wear whatever she wants, It's her right.
    However, Every place has it's rules, and to participate in the sport- you have to follow the rules. They were not put there to restrict her rights, but to make sure that everyone enjoys it. If they deem it's OK for her to wear it- then fine, but a committee needs to come to a conclusion on it and allow for it. If they don't, then that's the rules. I can imagine that if ALL dress code rules were removed, then there would be people showing up nude, or in Halloween costumes- just to exercise that right and make a statement.

    June 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  8. Matt

    Today was 100 F / 38 C in NYC.... I saw two women wearing burqa is that extreme heat and not be able to drink water and was full of sweat and stinky !

    June 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Interesting, as I've NEVER saw a woman wearing a burqa in the US. At all. Anywhere.
      I saw them in Afghanistan, but never here.
      As for sweaty and stinky, who wasn't, if they were outside the past few days?
      But then, I was also deployed to the Persian Gulf region, where hijab is the national attire. Most wearing the scarf and abaya.
      My wife found it cooler to wear the thing, as she came to visit when I was in Qatar and Kuwait.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  9. Pat

    A key principle of Islam is that everyone else must conform to their rules, not the other way around.

    June 9, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • Jason

      Would you like to paste the verse in Qur'an where it says that? Please give the Surah number with it so I may verify in my copy, as well as educate you on the proper meaning of that verse.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • paperjihad


      She's not asking for everyone else to dress the way she wants; she's asking to be able to dress herself the way she wants.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Joe

      Jason, I have the verse for you: Matthew 7:16

      June 9, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Jason

      @Joe, that verse in the bible is supposed to explain to me why the Original Poster says "A key principle of Islam is that everyone else must conform to their rules, not the other way around."?

      I was born. raised, and baptized Roman Catholic, later on became Baptist, and then went Agnostic for a while before I accepted Islam. I've studied Polytheistic religions, Monotheistic religions outside of Judaism/Christianity/Islam, and have had intimate knowledge of the Abrahamic religions as a whole. I've read The Old Testament and New Testament cover to cover, and am currently reading Qur'an. Before you go trying to quote or point out Christian Scripture to someone who already knows it, why don't you go pick up a Qur'an and read it and try to understand me better.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • @Jason

      I am sorry to see you converted to islam after having been a Christ, Atheist or whatever. You must be quite the loser whose life makes no sense. Maybe islamic intolerance, racism and hate will give it more meaning. FAIL!

      June 10, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  10. Leah

    This is an even better version of the outfit...


    June 9, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  11. Defender of Billy Bob

    Despite the name...it appears Billy Bob is a master of sarcasm which was missed by the lot of negative commenters

    June 9, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  12. Ephrem

    So here is the next step..It won't be so long before they try enforcing Halal meat in the whole country...Wait and see how this cancer spreads.

    June 9, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • Jason

      And what exactly is wrong with Halal meat? It's the Islamic equivalent of Kosher. Are you saying that we should not have Kosher meat either?

      June 9, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • paperjihad

      How is that different compared to kosher meat? As a Muslim, I don't really care if every bit of meat at the grocery store is halal; I just go to the local halal grocer and or butcher. And a kosher deli works just as well.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Paperjihad, yikes! Those poor trees getting used up! 😉
      Seriously, most of these type of posters are idiots, who don't even know what halal slaughter is.
      Personally, I prefer halal slaughter, as it's require to show compassion to the animal and never permit it to witness the slaughter of its peer.
      Now, if we could get lamb for the same price as it was in the Middle East, I'd be happy as a pig in slop. 😉

      June 9, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
    • Ron

      @Jason, Halal and Kosher are not the same. Muslims will eat Kosher but Jews won't eat Halal. Their are too many differences. Please wikipedia kosher and halal and you will see. As for the athlete, well you know what they say.... In Rome act as a roman.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • RachelM

      Ephrem– YOU are the kind of cancer that this country doesn't need.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Frank jones

      I agree with Ephrem. Islam is a cancer that needs to be removed.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Jason

      Ron, you need a lesson in reading and understanding. I never said they were the same. I said it was the Islamic equivalent. Organic, and prayer said before slaughter. I know the differences between them, and I know that Jews will not eat Halal meat.

      My question was one of acceptance. Why should our stores accept Kosher Meat, and not Halal meat? Kosher is freely available everywhere for the most part, I am wondering why the OP is opposed to having Halal meat in grocery stores.

      June 10, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • Jen

      Do you realize that halal meat means that the animal was killed in a humane way so that it would feel the least amount of pain possible and then has a prayer said over it? Compared to what happens in slaughter houses, that sounds much better to me...

      June 10, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • Jen

      What I said is directed towards Ephrem by the way!

      June 10, 2011 at 3:44 am |
  13. sanjosemike

    I'm not an expert on weight lifting as a sport, so perhaps I'm out of date or simply wrong, but I find myself in (surprising) agreement with MOB, a Muslim who says that: "...she wants to be recognized for who she is and what she does, not for her body."

    First, it is utterly shocking that I, an atheist would totally agree with a Muslilm on this point, but it happened! Second, either you can lift it or you cannot. You should be judged solely on that fact, and either win or lose based upon it. Your dress is irrelevant.

    June 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Chas

      I totally agree.

      And it's utterly shocking that I, a New Jersey resident, would agree with someone from San Jose!

      June 9, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      LOL! Reason trumps rhetoric, huh? 🙂
      Seriously though, from my recollection of hijab requirements, her elbows and knees can be visualized by something reasonably tight at the knees and elbows.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  14. BugsMalone

    Another sweet Borg story brought to you by CNN.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • The Anti-Troll

      Who forced you to read it? Stop whining and go do something else if it bothers you THAT much.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Lori

      Anti-Troll, will you marry me?

      June 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Kim


      June 9, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  15. Believer

    Smart move by the sport. She should be allowed to compete if they can find a way to judge her properly. This is not a beauty contest, nor a body builder contest....

    June 9, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  16. wes

    Girl, if you think competing is empowering, just try ignoring your religion and living free.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • antireligiousfreak

      Best advice on this thread 🙂

      June 9, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • JD

      Freedom of Religion...heard of it? And this is coming from me, an atheist.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Lori


      June 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • The Anti-Troll

      It's usually not that simple. People don't follow religions because they feel like it's fun or whatever, it's because they feel it's the truth. Until someone believes that their religion or set of beliefs is FALSE, they will stick to it. I mean, why would you want to make a deity that *YOU THINK* is real angry? Regardless of if the deity is Allah, Jesus, Zeus, whoever.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • Ninamencha

      great! you are right. If she cannot follow rules, then get out of the sport. What is next? Swimming?

      June 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • paperjihad


      Not every rule is just or correct...that's why they're subject to review and change.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Thanks, JD. I despise the militant atheist as dearly as a despise the religious type that insists on forcing their views upon others.
      I usually end up reminding them of the ninth amendment. Their rights may not disparage my rights.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  17. Allen

    That is a strong woman. She could say a guy's head off in no time.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  18. bob

    She is winning they are whining.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  19. vjpgh

    Actually being able to see the lifter's muscles and effort is part of the sport. The US is a melting pot – some conformity is needed.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  20. Medieval Weightlifter

    People who think women covering their body is stupid and medieval need to go to church at least once in their lives to see if Mary has her head and body covered or not? They would find Mary covered in modest clothing even in this 21st century... then ask the priest why is it like that?
    If you are not a church goer just look at the society in general the way women are projected on streets and on TV and then talk about the modesty..Go figure!

    June 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • burns

      Church is stupid.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • Lori

      Or people could realize believing in fairy tales is stupid, too.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • Ninamencha

      I agree with you, she should cover when she goes to church, but we are talking about a sport and she should follow the rules of that sport, otherwise, she has the option of not doing it.

      June 9, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Acaraho

      Hello, the Virgin Mary, other women, and even men in the mid-East covered themselves not out of modesty but because where they lived it was hot and the sun could fry their skin. Try living in a tropical world with your head and chest uncovered and see how many days you'd last before your skin sunburned and peeled and boils formed.

      June 9, 2011 at 11:08 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.