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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. Kamikaze

    "It's what I believe in. It's what I've chosen to do," Abdullah tells CNN

    Ignorance is bliss. France is on the right track for outlawing this crap.

    June 10, 2011 at 5:14 am |
    • Its Me :)

      Kamikaze....

      "It's what I believe in. It's what I've chosen to do," Abdullah tells CNN

      And you are WHO to judge this chick?

      June 10, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • Colonel Major Worthington

      We're us, of course. And you're one of us.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:08 am |
    • Zeppelin

      It's Me 🙂 – they are another human being, capable of rational thought. That is what gives the right to judge. Your question is silly and without merit, obviously fueled by emotion. It's what people say when they can't argue.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:11 am |
  2. WorldIsRound

    This can't get any more ridiculous. If she is really passionate about lifting weight, she should adhere to rule of Weight Lifting Sport. Why should she be treated any specially than other athletes? Weight Lifting has got nothing to do with any religion. Anyone capable can compete and when they do they are treated as sports persons and not as any belonging to a particular religion.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:57 am |
    • cricket

      I agree. Although I empathize with her desire to dress according to her faith's restrictions, I also am really frustrated with people that want to participate in something and expect everyone else to change the rules to accommodate them. I'm all for inclusion but if you want to play, you have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • NuPrahktisingAturney.

      What is ridiculous is your narrow and highly bigoted viewpoint on sacrificing deeply-held religious beliefs as a requirement to participating in a sport. In essence, you subvert her religious beliefs–something deeply spiritual–in order to falsely glorify a set of rules; in this case, a rule the breach of which gives her no advantage, and that is something the judges can easily discern. Sure, you may respond by saying "well, then we'd have to accommodate every religious consideration, and that would be impossible." It would not be impossible, if it ever came to fruition that the sport(s) needed to do such a thing; it would simply be difficult. Thankfully (and hopefully) we have rationale minds operating and enforcing the rules of sports to accommodate participants of every religion in a manner that still upholds the integrity, purpose, and ideals of the particular sport. Allowing this brave Muslim woman to adhere to her religious attire is a perfect example of how a sport can welcome and accommodate a sport with jeopardizing either the religion or the sport. It was neither impossible nor insulting, for the Muslim woman or to the sport.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Pat

      You don't understand.
      The point of Islam is to coerce everyone to conform to their expectations, not the other way around.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • NuPrahktisingAturney.

      Thanks for the.......clarification. I spent two months in Turkey as a practicing Christian, attending Christian mass. Not once did anyone so much as suggest I should join the Islamic faith. I recognize this is a generalization, but it points out the fallacy in your statement/argument: coercion can hardly be the "point" of Islam when a group of Christians (at the church with me in Ankara-St. Nicolas) went undisturbed observing their Christianity.

      So, if I still "don't understand", perhaps you could make a better argument than incorrectly summarizing and generalizing an entire religion. Your statement is akin to saying that the "point" of Catholicism is to sodomize young boys. To illustrate, some Muslims coerce people into converting to Islam; therefore, the "point" of Islam is to coerce people into converting. Some Catholic priests sodomize young boys; therefore, the "point" of Catholicism is to sodomize young boys.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  3. nino

    Hot! She looks cute. I saw the hottest lil asian girl today at the gym, she was about 5 4 maybe even 5 2.. bench pressing two 45 pound plates.. HOT!!

    June 10, 2011 at 4:52 am |
  4. Scott

    It will just make it easier to hide a bomb, her or someone like her....Seriously.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:25 am |
  5. Karim Javed

    I Think doing any sport in their proper clothes is another matter but the main problem is the comfort if she feels comfortable after covering their body and agree to do sports with that then what can us do for this. I think that not yet any technology has discovered which increases your strength and power after wearing a particular dress. Then what happens with this clothes. They should worry about Steroids and performance enhancing drugs not clothes.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:02 am |
  6. hakin

    she doesn't look like 35-year-old , she looks tenager girl.
    God bless her.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:30 am |
  7. Abdullah McGregor

    To all of you haters, search in you tube "Native Deen – Not Afraid to stand Alone", and "Kareem Salama – Generous Peace"
    Also, grow up, America is the land of the free, not the land of the intolerant so called conservative Christians nor the ungrateful liberal Atheist.
    Every hater here is not really an American. (btw there is a channel for folks like you called FOX, don't bring your filth here.)

    June 10, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  8. Faqi

    Adam – what is the connection of a woman lifting weights in a hijab and this video? Is it relevant in some way?

    June 10, 2011 at 2:31 am |
  9. barry allen

    If her clothes were marked with lines that would allow them to more clearly see he locking out of the joints ( and appreciate her curves lol)

    June 10, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  10. tender

    This is ridiculous! why should someone have some special rule? If you don't like the rules, then don't compete. Just do it for hobby on the side in your basement. What is next? A chicken suit for someone who claims his religion dictates that? How about a spacesuit? If they allow this, that would be submission.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:14 am |
    • special rules?

      your comment reeks of prejudice. Her wearing a head covering is her choice & as long as it does not allow her to cheat or gain unfair advantage, it is perfectly OK. Not special at all! I think women should have a right to wear whatever they want as long as its not cheating. So top being a hard ass prejudice.

      June 10, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • vs101

      Not a question of prejudice. The sports organization did not establish its dress rules with an intention to discriminate against a religion. If she is passionate about it, perhaps she should be motivatng muslim countries/organizations to introduce islamic games where they can wear what they want. Frankly, I am surprised that there is not an uproar from those quarters about her even competing in such an event. As she is in the US, muslims are limiting their outrage to moderate levels by sticking to concerns about prejudice. As point of reference, a woman in Saudi Arabia was arrested recently for disobeying the rules of Islam by daring to DRIVE A CAR. Perhaps the enlightened muslims commenting on this site need to be redirecting their fake outrage at that.

      June 10, 2011 at 5:58 am |
  11. jimmerz

    1. she's quite smart
    2. she's muslim

    question: isn't she already defying her religion with these two traits?

    June 10, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Omar

      Respectfully, you have no idea what Islam is about or knowledge of the women that practice it. My wife, sister, and mother are all intelligent Muslim women. Islam at it's core teaches, even demands, that you gain knowledge throughout your entire life.

      June 10, 2011 at 3:46 am |
    • vs101

      Omar – Tell that pearl of wisdom to the millions of women in Afghanistan, who don't have a choice. Their understanding of your wonderful faith is quite different. This "misunderstanding" of your faith appears to be quite widespread in muslims countries. Perhaps they are all infidels?

      June 10, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  12. bobby

    This is a pic of a terrorist training camp.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • Jack

      She is in right here in US; are you implying that US is harboring terrorists?..lol

      June 10, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • fcj

      you are an ignorant person. Just becasue someone wears a scarf does not mean they are terrorists. If you believe that then what do you call Virgin Mary? She wears the scarf and billions of Muslim woman revere her as one of a few woman that they follow.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:19 am |
    • bobby

      Follow Mary for what ? Were in the bible does it say to worship are praise Mary in any way.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:27 am |
  13. Austin Texas

    You should be able to dress however you want. However when that involves being involved in an optional activity sponsored by a group such as IWF then their rules should be adhered to.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • Jack

      Leave it to the IWF committee to decide; fortunately, we hope the committee is not filled with morons like you who think that wearing a scarf and a full sleeve shirt is going to make her lift higher amount of weight.

      June 10, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • iRex

      I don't disagree with that, but its also reasonable to request rules changes. They happen in all sports form time to time.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • rules

      austin texas: yes, i agree with you on following the rules. However, the rules are designed to prevent cheating - and if the garments do not allow her to cheat, they should be allowed. Sure it is an optional sport... but Last time i checked, weight lifting was a sport for all people (not just Non-Muslims). Avoid discrimination if possible.

      June 10, 2011 at 3:43 am |
  14. thesomnambulant

    yeah crossfit!

    June 10, 2011 at 1:35 am |
  15. Gerry

    As far as I'm concerned, you are welcome to practice your religion as you see fit, free from discrimination, so long as you are not hurting others. You are NOT welcome to demand that special concessions be made to accommodate your religious beliefs. The two are not the same. If you want the privilege of living in a society that allows and even encourages a woman to participate in a sport like weightlifting, then you need to show some respect for the principles that provide you with that freedom, rather than demanding that they be bent to your peculiar ideology.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:33 am |
    • Murat

      Yep. Well said.

      June 10, 2011 at 1:34 am |
    • LailaK

      Well, she is apparently NOT "demanding" as you said. She is clearly a rational person who shows compassion by saying "if not for me then maybe for other women who – if they have my faith or another faith – dress a certain way." Please be considerate with what you say about others.

      June 10, 2011 at 1:49 am |
    • Creaturz

      Peculiar ideology is what could be described as a religion by some. The proper term for your statement should be corrected from "hurting others" to "offending others". After all, that's all it takes for many of that religion to start "hurting others".

      June 10, 2011 at 2:06 am |
    • fcj

      That ideology is the same for Christains, Muslims and Jews. So what you are saying it is more respectful and American like if she wear a skimpy bikini or tight fitting shorts. I wonder who would Jesus (pbuh) side with.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  16. Jafar

    She wants to dress in a certain way so as to adhere to her religion and not tempt men,right? Too late, her pic is all over the internet now and millions of guys could be fantasizing about her. So much for trying to follow the rules of the religion.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • Murat

      Yeah, they will stone her to death for not being modest. Islam rocks!

      June 10, 2011 at 1:33 am |
    • iRex

      Pretty sure that they don't stone people in Atlanta, well, at least not that kind of stoned.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  17. David

    Apparently no one reads the old testament anymore....citing the Quran for it's barbarism.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Alessandra

      The old, the new testaments...all have been altered!

      June 10, 2011 at 1:50 am |
    • OC Guy

      Um, the old testament was written BEFORE the Quran – how could it condemn it?

      June 10, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  18. Jen

    Reading these comments here shows once again how intolerant and backward muslims are. I don't want them in my country.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Malick

      You don't want them in your country!! It seems like, assuming your "christian", you hate muslims, America accepted Muslims more than many other country even after 911, and its people like you racist **** out there that gives America a bad name. I bet you hate Jewish people too (yes they are white), since they killed your God.

      June 10, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • LailaK

      Why do we target all Muslims just because of what happened in 9/11? There are good people and bad people everywhere in this world, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Buddist. Please consider this fact!

      June 10, 2011 at 1:56 am |
    • Justin

      Do I have to point out the hypocrisy here? 'Muslims are intolerant so I don't want them in my country'.
      Whose intolerant now?

      June 10, 2011 at 4:06 am |
  19. ISLAM IS COMPASSION!

    Mohammed was a compassionate man:

    "Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900..."
    Tabari VIII:35/Ishaq:464

    ISLAM IS COMPASSION!

    June 10, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • Zarvan

      What is the punishment if someone breaks the laws of your country do you punish people or just let them go and by the way Islam is the fastest growing religion in USA

      June 10, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  20. tony g

    What I dont get is why so much hateful comments about her dress. She is a Muslim, I think you should welcome her in your society, because she doesnt drink, doesnt smoke, doent do drugs or any other thing that hurts anyone or anything. Yet there is so much hate about Muslims and Islam. She she was smoking pot, probably she would get acceptance but covering her head she doesnt. If she was selling drugs or drunk she would get accepted but her scarf makes you guys dislike her. Get out of your small worlds and see what really Islam is and who truly Muslims are. Shame on those insulting comments.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • @tony g

      Well tony g, the problem is that people in the West live in the 3rd millennium and they don't want to deal with an intolerant, racist, violent and backward 6th century ideology such as islam. People get abused and killed in the name of your ideology all over the world and yet there's still people like you who ask 5 bililon people to respect islam? Are you kidding me? The best thing you can do is to become aware of how hateful islam is and leave it.And make sure they won't kill you as an apostate. Islam is peaceful and tolerant, isn't it?

      June 10, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • Alessandra

      Couldn't agree more with you Tony! I wonder who this Frank Jones embecile ignorant jerk is?

      June 10, 2011 at 1:48 am |
    • LailaK

      I absolutely agree with you! Islam is unfortunately being targated with ignorance and lack of knowledge about it!

      June 10, 2011 at 1:57 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.