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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. emma65

    Here we go again: people who want it both ways and we are all supposed to accomodate them with special priveleges or else we are intolerant. Discrimination used to mean you were not treated the same as everyone else; nowadays it seems to mean that you are not getting some sort of special accomodation to the rules that apply to everyone else.
    If she wants to compete with others, she can do so according to the same rules, standards and practice as everyone else.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • LEB

      If they changed the rules to accommodate her, then the rules would change for everyone. Some weight lifters might actually prefer to wear a more covering costume. Altering the rules to be more inclusive isn't giving anyone "special privileges." The rules of sports are updated all the time in the interest of those competing.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  2. Dystopiax

    What would Jesus jerk?

    June 10, 2011 at 7:51 am |
  3. Soldaten45

    She's cute

    June 10, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  4. 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."

    June 10, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • TomUSMC

      Ummm, this doesn't remind me of what you just quoted at all. We are talking about a sport, not religion or life. Sports have rules, follow them or don't play. Next we will be complaining about the fact that Monopoly has rules. Maybe they should do away with the rules of Blackjack too.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  5. shagadalic

    So what if she cover her self, its her choice? I thought it was a free country and a free sport in United states? Or is it just for people who aren't muslim? Hypocrites.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:24 am |
    • patti

      The point is the judges need to make sure she does not have any braces on that give her an edge.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • Alyssa

      @patti, they can still do that and permit her to wear long sleeves and pants.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • Wayne

      The rules of weightlifting has nothing to do with freedom, idiot.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • JustMe

      When you join organizations or participate in certain things, there are sometimes rules. Little Leaguers have uniforms. Boy Scouts have uniforms. Church choirs wear robes. Private schools require a dress code. None of that has anything to do with being American and freedom. You CHOOSE to join, therefore you abide by the regulations. My husband can't wear his wedding band to work due to safety issues. No one fusses about that.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  6. Beefburger

    Wait until Olympic Volleyball runs into this 12th century fashion statement.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  7. Canadian Jack

    Religion is the problem. GOD never invented any religion, mortal men did. Those men have caused most of the current wars in the world. Religion has covered this young woman from head to foot and eliminated any concept of her femininity. When she lifts the weight she feels the joy of being alive within a female body created by her GOD. That is all the religion she needs.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Alyssa

      I'm not a Muslim, I'm an atheist. But, why must her body be exposed to others in order for her to illustrate her femininity?

      June 10, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  8. Aaron

    If she chooses to compete and join THEIR organization, she should respect THEIR rules. If she doesn't like it she is free to start her own 'elbows and knee covered Islamic woman powerlifting league'. Nobody is stopping her. Why do people want to join organizations they don't agree with then insist on changing the rules.

    Beyond that, there are NO rules except man-made ones that prevent Islamic women from displaying their body, driving a car, wearing head coverings etc... In places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, now Egypt, and many more islamic states, they oppress their women, yet when we dont conform with their oppression we are accused of being the bad guy.. give me a break.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  9. Kathy

    if your going to compete you should expect to conform.The sports attire is never revealing so if she wants to participate she should expect to follow the rules. I can see where the head garb could be very dangerous in sports.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:17 am |
  10. truthman

    devilsadvocate, wrong a woman is not required to cover her head in 99% of countries in the middle east. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the onoly two countries that require that. people get your facts right before you spread misinformation.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • TheTRUTH

      Islam, requires muslim women to cover their head 100% of the time when in public. ( FYI ) not the country they live in.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  11. Gunga Din

    IT IS FASCINATING TO ME THAT PEOPLE ON THE ONE HAND CONSTANTLY CRITICIZE THE "MUSLIM WORLD" OR "ISLAM" FOR SUPPRESSING WOMEN OR NOT INTEGRATING INTO SOCIETY – BUT THEN TURN AROUND AND CRITICIZE A YOUNG MUSLIM FEMALE WEIGHTLIFTER (OF ALL THINGS !!) WHO IS TRYING TO MAKE IT IN A NON-MUSLIM AND CERTAINLY NON-FEMALE SPORT. COMMENDATIONS SHOULD BE GIVEN TO THE OLYMPIC COMMITTEE FOR TRYING TO RESOLVE THE ISSUE. THEY ARE OBVIOUSLY MORE INCLUSIVE THAN THE BIGOT BLOGGERS ON THIS SITE.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • Colonel Major Worthington

      I say old chap, you've got something stuck on your keyboard.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:06 am |
    • Urban Farmers

      "Gunga Din..IT IS FASCINATING TO ME"...Whats more fascinating is how the Muslims think that Americans are so dumb that we will allow them to Bum Rush us with their Islam crap without any push back at all.

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

      @Urban Farmer, it is one young woman, not a legion of Muslims, politely requesting an exemption based upon religious courtesy. It doesn't effect you in the least, so why the hostility?

      June 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  12. truthman

    If you can do the sport with cloths or without you should be allowed to compete. Covering her head and body should in no way give her an edge in competing. why is it ok to to allow women to wear skimpy cloths in playing volleyball, tennis or skating but not allow women to cover if they chose. Something is wrong in this picture?

    June 10, 2011 at 6:55 am |
    • Rami

      Very good point Truth.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  13. Your Name Put It Here

    Empty comment for no other reason than I was bored. There. I think I speak for most people here when I say nothing worthwhile. 🙂

    June 10, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  14. devilsadvocate

    It is odd, when a western woment goes to many places in the middle east they are required to wear a head scarf. Yet when women from the middle east come to the US they feel they do not need to conform to the norm. Another case of muslims trying to impose there beliefs/customs on others

    June 10, 2011 at 6:44 am |
    • Alyssa

      I don't see it as a bad thing that we are generally more tolerant of other cultures.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:59 am |
  15. smiley

    Modesty is dressing in a non-provocative manner. This is a political statement, not modesty.

    June 10, 2011 at 6:40 am |
  16. 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 5:59 am |
    • Its Me :)

      Disobeying the rules of Islam by daring to DRIVE A CAR????

      There arent any rules of Islam against driving a car. Get your facts right budd! Those Saudi idiots have some twisted rules and yet we provide them our whole military support.........

      Have a great day!

      June 10, 2011 at 6:26 am |
  17. Chongo

    Islam today is in conflict, between western secular culture and traditional Islamic culture. The growth of Islamic Fundamentalism is an attempt to reach back to the glories of Islamic history. Many Fundamentalist (Muslim) ask themselves the question, If Islam is the religion of Allah, why are we being defeated by the West (United States) and Israel. The fundamentalist sees the problem with the failure of Islamic nations to live as the Quran commands. This view of not living the life required by Allah, as specified in the Quran and traditions and therefore being defeated by the West, is the spark of fundamentalism. Today in Islam there is a struggle between moderate and fundamentalist ideology.

    1. In short if she wants to be involved in an optional activity sponsored by a group such as IWF then their rules should be adhered to.
    2. When was the last time we heard Muslim help rebuild a country?

    June 10, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • shagadalic

      If she wants to lift she can lift! if they want to search her to see if she has any bionic arm, another female from IWF can search her behind closed door. I dont see why she has to show her full body to participate for this sport. It's like if you have a daughter you suggest her to run around in her bra and panties. Which I highly doubt you do.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • JustMe

      Who said she has to show her full body?? No one is asking her to run around in her underwear or wear a bikini. They need to see elbows and knees.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  18. lw

    If a conservative mennonite or Almish woman wanted their head covered, I'm sure we would respect thier freedom to do so.

    June 10, 2011 at 5:50 am |
    • vs101

      I don't think that the sports organization is concerned about her covering her hair. It has to do with what she is wearing on the rest of her body. They have to see specific areas left uncovered so they can judge if she followed the rules of lifting.

      June 10, 2011 at 6:04 am |
    • TomUSMC

      You are sure they would allow an Amish woman to wear the same things??? are you an idiot or just play one on tv? sports have rules for reasons. have you ever even played a sport? it has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with having a level playing field.

      June 10, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  19. luckluck

    This is not about treating her different than others. Actually, others have more advantage on her because they could move around quicker. Why would ignorance oppose even personal things.

    Can you force uncovered lady to cover? same thing, why should she be forced to uncover. Very simple. But, we westerners can't get enough on hatred and biased. Jealous on everything

    June 10, 2011 at 5:42 am |
    • WorldIsRound

      Exactly what any sane person would say, she should NOT have any disadvantage or advantage because of her dressing. If she wants to be part of the sport, she should be sportive enough to adhere to its rules.

      June 10, 2011 at 5:47 am |
  20. zolman

    Another example of the power of religious beliefs that make intellegent people do unintellegent things.

    June 10, 2011 at 5:41 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.