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. YourMomListensTo KoolKeith




    June 10, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  2. MisterDobalina MisterBobDobalina



    June 10, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  3. Kool KeithIsBestRappaEver


    😀 😉

    June 10, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  4. Rell e Rell

    It the rules state that Abdullah and the other athlets have to have her elbows and knees visable, it seems to me that 1 simple solution would be to allow her to ware her garment, but have a clear "see through material at the elbows and the knees. Maybe that would satisfy the rules. Let's look for reasonable and acceptable solution people, not only for this issue, but for many others that confront us. That's on of the things that makes this country and the human race so great and full of potential. We figure things out. Let's not limit ourselves. Ms Abdullah, I commend and respect you for standing up for what you believe in. Best of luck to ya. I'm pulling for ya.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Chris

      Nice sentiment but the entire issue is that clear/see through clothing doesn't work...it isn't like she's a nevernude. It is the "seeing" of her skin that is the problem.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  5. Elle Cee

    This once again proves how ridiculous organized religions are.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Michael Bauman

      Once again, your comment proves the hatred, arrogance and stupidity of those who shoot off their mouths in over genralized reactions to specific situations.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Chris

      Totally agree. The only reason that women have to cover themselves is because Men rule the Muslim world and do anything they can to control women. I seriously doubt the Quran states that women can't drive, sell lingirie, etc. but men have told them they can't for so long it is "accepted". Millions of women who are Muslim do not cover their entire body and somehow haven't been struck down, burst into flames, etc. The problem with religion is that people blindly follow the "teachings" of people that may or may not be insane and follow it to the ends of the world as truth. Maybe, just maybe covering their bodies is due to insecure men who didn't want their women being coveted by others. You see it with rednecks, rich people, all races.....insecure men not wanting their women going out in public, telling them what to wear, etc. If there is in fact a god....he/she would not care one bit about what clothes someone wears. The concept is just stupid.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • KPATL

      No,.. it is not the religion that is ridiculous,.. it is the fact that the IWF or Olympic community would bend their rules to accomodate an absurd religion.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  6. Chet

    This is the way it started and it should be good today. The Muslims can have their own olympics.____

    They wore in the Olympics very little. The Olympics were held in the heat of the summer. For safety men performed in the nude. Women wore a simple tunic. Nudity of men was a tradition that was maintained because the Greeks thought it made the sports safer. It also obviously reduced certain kinds of cheating. In the event of a conflict naked participants are easier to control because they had no weapons hidden in their clothes.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Joe

      So the Olympics should be naked again? Is that you are suggesting we go back to the time of Ancient Greece? Should we make sacrifices to Zeus and only allow Greeks to compete as well?

      June 10, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Retired Army in San Antonio

      Yeah......apparently, Chet wants to see naked men running, jumping and wrestling in public.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  7. GLM

    Athlete wants to compete at officially-sanctioned events.
    Conflict arises with her religious views and the rules of the sport.
    The two sides are well on the way to reaching a reasonable compromise with a level-headed discussion taking place.


    June 10, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Retired Army in San Antonio

      Yeah! HOW DARE THEY settle this issue with civilized dialogue!!!!!!!

      June 10, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  8. Ahmed

    Oh again with the Hijab...America's favorite subject 😀

    June 10, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  9. Ira

    The people making ignorant comments should be ashamed of themselves. She is doing nothing wrong by asking the governing body if she can lift with her body covered. Most of you commenting don't know anything about this sport and have no idea how it would effect determining if she made an acceptable lift. I know about the sport because I competed for the US in this sport in the 80's at the Junior World Weightlifting championships. The fact that she is covered will make no difference in determining the lift as long as it is not baggy, loose clothing. Allowing her to wear what she has on in the picture should be allowed in my opinion. It gives her no advantage.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Cutter

      She can cut holes out where her knees and elbows are. Would that be OK with her? If not, then she's being a baby.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  10. Chris

    If you insist on walking, talking, and acting like a muslim, why do you even bother coming to America? Are you using her just for the money? shameful

    June 10, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Chris

      not sure if serious?

      June 10, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  11. Action Jackson

    Ok, she can lift 245lbs, but can she lift Ibrahim Hooper, that nasty fat slob?

    June 10, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  12. sisi

    Sure, lets just change the rules of the sport to accommodate someone's religious beliefs. This country is going to heck in a hand basket!

    June 10, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Lisa

      Do you really believe that a country will go to hell for allowing someone to wear a scarf on their head, which harms no one? Then you deserve to go to hell, you hateful, horrible person.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • pourquoi

      Well, don't we already. We accept all belifs by accomidating htem. Or I suppose we should be, since our courts have the 10 commandments in there. Your comment is purly out of fear of Muslims. Invalid becasue she is lifting weights, not bombs.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • KPATL

      Sisi is angered by all of the accomodation we do in the country to remain PC. Muslims always ask us to accomodate them, but never do the same when situations are reversed. They ask for tolerance but give none.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  13. Kelly

    Kulsoom Abdullah – YOU ROCK GIRL!

    June 10, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  14. Sookie

    There goes the muslims again,The world must conform to their dress code. You play by the rules or stay away from the game

    June 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • pourquoi

      Will the clothing giver her advantage? No, only her skill. She has it, so she may participate.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Tariq Ali

      Your'e Ignorant... so what if she wants to be fully covered... it's the right thing to do. and you dont have to confrom just let us live by our religion freely

      June 10, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • KPATL

      TOTALLY AGREE. If they want, start the "Muslim Games" that way they can do as they wish.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  15. 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. Rules are rules, why does America always has to bend over backwards for those countries with outdated religious beliefs.Lets all move forward and abide by American rules.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • ubretarded


      June 10, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • pourquoi

      No one is bending backwards. We are being more accepting. You can wear all that clothing or show up in the body suit. You are right that Iran, for example, wpuld not accept that. But who care? This is not Iran, right?

      June 10, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Brian

      So are you arguing that we should live by the same standards as a theocracy? Strange, but I didn't think that was our philosophy.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  16. Ivory

    I totally agree with that lady's attempt to have the IWF take into consideration her religious belief. However, I do not think sport federations should bend their rules to accomodate any religious group. The rules should only be changed to better the sport itself, and athletes, regardless of their religious belief. If the rules are changed for one religious group, they will have to be changed for other religious groups if they request the change, and this will denaturate the sport.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • spm422

      I agree. Her request should be taken into consideration. I have no problem with her being covered but if they allow for her to be covered, all athletes need to have the same rights irregardless of their religious beliefs.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  17. Sorry Honey

    You don't join a game if you can't play by the rules. Go find something else to do.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Lizzy

      Dont be haten!!!!

      June 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • AndIThoughtIWasStrong

      Yeah, i'm sure women haven't heard that for the last couple of millenia... rules change all the time, look at the NBA and NFL (when they're not in a lock out)

      June 10, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  18. SAS

    WOW ! What a woman !

    June 10, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • MBJ

      Agreed... we in the west talk about how oppressed women in the Islamic world are ... and here she is with a PhD and powerlifting, talking about how it is "empowering" ... it seems we are just obsessed with clothing. Look close, she dresses like a nun 🙂

      June 10, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  19. glenda

    If this is what she wants, what's the problem?

    June 10, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  20. Justin Observation

    Why does she need to "compete" in the sport?
    Just lift your weights and enjoy it.
    Why this desire for vanity from one who wants to be so modest?

    June 10, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • ubretarded

      You're confusing vanity for pride, which I'm sure she feels for such a great accomplishment. Don't be petty, go back to your computer and cheetoes..

      June 10, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Action Jackson

      Ubretarted: you're the one confusing vanity with pride. This is one of the most vain women I have ever read about.

      June 10, 2011 at 9:26 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.