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. Marie Kidman


    June 10, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  2. Jason

    A 100 woman with a PhD who can deadlift 245?

    If you needed your dose of humble for the day there it is.

    Oh this article was about the Hijab?

    June 10, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • kate

      @Jason, spot on! That was what impressed me the most.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  3. Km

    Did I hear someone say, "Off with her head?" Oh, I believe that's the distant callings of her male Muslim counterparts!!

    June 10, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  4. Usaywha?

    I think this is great! I wish her well. I hope none of her fellow believers finds what she does offensive because she's a woman and decides she has to die because of her passion for weight lifting.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • RaKa

      How dare she choose modesty! Not in this day and age! And definitely not in this country!!!!!

      June 10, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  5. altmeddoc

    This is complete and utter nonsence.
    This is not a religious issue but an issue of supposed acceptable female conduct imposed upon women by men and enacted by sharia.
    In my view, this should not be premitted in any sport whatsoever.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Hoff

      You can't cover your elbows or knees because the judges need to see if you're cheating

      June 10, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  6. TheTRUTH

    The kafir will not get the Ahadith, it is TOO HEAVY!!! for them.Baraka'Allahu feek.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  7. Mesa

    Play by the rules or don't play at all.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • badger_doc

      Agreed! Just like the soccer rules–nothing can cover the neck due to the risk of choking. These rules have been in place for a long time. Follow them, or don't play. Simple as that.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  8. lonecamper

    To bring yourself to a religion is your right.
    To bring your religion to others is not.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • patruns

      Actually, that is a rather well said and thought provoking comment. I am not sure it completely applies in this instance, but I like it and will remember it in the future.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • lonecamper

      Oh I'm sure it does if that eases your mind !

      June 10, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  9. Sagebrush Shorty

    Of course the USOC will bow to her wishes. After all she is Muslim and they are special. Rules that the rest of society must abide by do not apply to our protected minority.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Chris

      let me guess, you're a bitter white guy hehe

      June 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • RaKa

      Yes, because as everyone knows by wearing those "modest" clothes she is able to lift more. What a bunch of pansys!

      June 10, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  10. KM

    OK,OK,OK. Why have any rules? It sounds just like public school. We have these rules, but they don't apply to a few. Again, why have any rules at all? Let's just throw them all out and have a lawless society. Oh wait, then the U.S. would be on par with the middle east !!

    June 10, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • patruns

      Wow! What a close minded person you are. This woman is working for a solution within the rules, not for them to be thrown out. No wonder we can't get along with other countries with citizens like you.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  11. XWngLady

    Well, its the IWF's perogative to consider her request. If they choose to accodate, again that's their perogative, but they shouldn't obligated to change the rules. I hope that they can find a solution that works for everyone.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  12. Muslim

    The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Allah has cursed the women who imitate the men and the men who imitate the women.”

    [Musnad Imam Ahmad, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan at-Tirmidhi and it is Authentic]

    The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Allah has cursed the women who imitate the men and the men who imitate the women.”

    [Musnad Imam Ahmad, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan at-Tirmidhi and it is Authentic]

    The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Allah has cursed the women who imitate the men and the men who imitate the women.”

    [Musnad Imam Ahmad, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan at-Tirmidhi and it is Authentic]

    June 10, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • TheTRUTH

      Baraka'Allahu feek !!!

      June 10, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • runner305

      oh, and because Allah said it, it must be true...for everyone?! I hardly think so. Also, no need to post the same thing 3X.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      What does he say about child molesters?

      June 10, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Jamal

      Even if you are to follow this Surah from Quaran, what sanctions weight lifting as man's game only? I can hardly imagine it is written in Quran or in Sunnah.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • white


      June 10, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  13. patruns

    I have to give her credit. She understands the rules and reasons and is looking to see if she can somehow be accommodated within those rules. I wish others would take that approach instead of just whining that their rights are jeopardized. What if she could wear garments with cut-outs on the elbows and knees? Would that satisfy the rules while still allowing her to maintain the provisions of her faith?

    June 10, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • John1Galt

      patruns, I agree with you. I'm not sure that what you suggest would work (see my earlier post) but it's refreshing that everyone is trying to work it out to mutual satisfaction.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Newo

      cut out garmets were the first thing I thought of, just at the elbows and knees. She said she was willing to compromise on that note –i'm sure they'll work it out. If that's really all the judges need to see than there really isn't a need to wear the singlet.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  14. Muslim

    The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Allah has cursed the women who imitate the men and the men who imitate the women.”

    [Musnad Imam Ahmad, Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan at-Tirmidhi and it is Authentic]

    June 10, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • runner305

      She wants to lift weights. What's YOUR problem?

      June 10, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • TheTRUTH


      The daughters of America,& Europe the sentence is clear.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  15. Wayne

    Freedom of religion does not apply in all aspects of society. Your understanding of freedom shows a lack of education.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  16. LEB

    I think that a compromise could be made, but she would have to bend a little bit more than she already has. If elbow lockout is what's important to observe, then her sleeves could be made of thin spandex or a similar material that was opaque but showed the anatomy of her arms clear enough for the judges. She could be patted down in private to make sure she wasn't wearing anything illegal under her clothes. If she prefers her clothing to be looser over her breasts, torso, and legs, and judging doesn't require those muscles or joints being closely observed, then why not compromise with tight sleeves and let the rest of her outfit be looser and covering? Non-Muslim lifters might also appreciate the alternative, as well.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Jean

      The knees must also be locked for completed lift. That would require leggings and I don't think proper Muslim attire would allow that.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  17. Wayne

    Abide by the rules or don't compete. It woudn't hurt if she gave up Islam.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Lynne

      Funny how there is an international committee looking into changing "rules" once again for Muslims in America. Where is the committee trying to change the rules of a high school who will not allow a graduate to where her Marine Dress Blues at Graduation since the "rules" say you have to wear school colored cap and gown!! If this isn't absurd I don't know what is.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • BioHzrd

      Why don't you just give up being a Christian?

      June 10, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • EyeH8U

      It wouldn't hurt if you were to stop breathing.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • white

      t wouldn't hurt if you got educated

      June 10, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  18. John1Galt

    I think that this will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. I compete in and judge Olympic weightlifting and the difficulty for the judges is in determining whether the elbows are locked out when the bar is overhead. Pressing the bar like one would perfrom a military press is illegal. As for her beliefs, they are her beliefs and that's enough to be an end to it. No one has the right to criticize her for it.

    But, this is a great sport and we should do what we can to keep everyone involved.who wants to be involved.. Let's have a little enlightened self-interest if for no other reason. Do we really want to exclude a whole section of socieity where the next U.S. Olympic champion could be?
    Many lifters wear Neoprene sleeves on their knees and elbows.for support. The Neoprene is thick enough that it's probably not too revealing for her convictions and it's not so thick that it doesn't skew the judge's ability to judge the lift. Many lifters also wear socks up to their knees to avoid abraisions from the bar. So, most of this can be pretty easily worked out so that she's satisfied and the rules are not violated. Currently, the rules state that there must be some skin showing between the singlet and the knee or knee brace. That's where the issue probably is for her.

    But the objective of the rule is to ensure that the lifter isn't wearing a support costume. Olympic weightlifters can only use a belt within certain specifications. Powerlifters may wear compression suits, which is like wearing a belt over your whole body. That's illegal in Olympic weightlifting and it's why the costume is so revealing. The judges must be able to see ithat the lifter is not wearing any illegal support. But with today's singlets and the fabrics used, I think that the IWF can make a change about having to actaully see skin and still enable the judges to judge the lift effectively and she'll be able to purchase a costume that won't violate her beliefs.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • trx985

      Thank you for this calm, informative and enlightening response. Very well said. I salute you.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  19. TheTRUTH

    Here in the west if a women cover her body and have morallity about herself, and not flaunt her private parts in public, and she happen to be a muslim,people in the west and in europe,claim that these WOMEN,are being oppressed and look at them strange when they walk by them on the street,BUT, when the same people see a nun, who is dressed the same way,the HYPOCRITES!!! say very politely,"O" HELLO SISTER.Then their daughters,leave a BAR,three in the morning drunk,and found dead in a dumpster
    "GO FIGURE"... WAKE-UP!!! people.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • lonecamper

      A >Nun's< Daughter? What are you saying???

      June 10, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • bostonma


      Your point about the double standard for nun's and other conservatively dressed women is spot on...but your implication that the way women dress is somehow the cause of violence against them, or even worse that their dress is an invitation to violence is highly offensive, misogynistic and blames victims for the actions of those who do violence against them.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • NuPrahktisingAturney.

      @ theTRUTH. You should do stand-up comedy. Friggin genius material.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  20. Wooow.

    She only wants to wear more clothes. You people are really ignorant for just talking about the rules. One of the rights for America is it's not prejudiced, FREE RELIGION. Anything that clashes with that shouldn't be part of the American culture. You should respect that. They can check her if they think she's trying to cheat or whatever, it shouldn't be such a big deal.

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

      She has the right to practice her religion. Weight lifting is NOT a right. Although a dramatic example, would they be willing to allow a weight lifting nun to wear her habit during an event? I doubt it. The only reason that is becoming an issue she because she is a Muslim, which her right and one I respect. I also respect the rights of the weight lifting governing authority and their rules. Clearly, as is the case in many sports and even professions, we make choices and not everybody can participate in the sport they love or work in the profession they desire.

      June 10, 2011 at 8:18 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.