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. Moe

    Is it just me, but doesn't that picture with the scarf and open mouth look like the scream halloween mask

    June 10, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • frank

      It's just you.

      June 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  2. doughnuts

    Too bad she doesn't feel empowered enough to cast off foolish ideology that treats her like a second-class citizen.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Phil

      Well, thank God for now that its not your right to make that decision for her. Now keep your bigoted comments to yourself.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Look@UrSelf

      Phil is right. By the way, donuts are not good diet.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • doughnuts

      Actually, Phil's an idiot. He probably believes in some silly religion, as well.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  3. The Chikin

    What is the big deal? If she wants to wear a tutu, she should be able to. Let the lady wear what she wants!

    June 10, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  4. Keith

    Figure a way to show your elbows and knees. If you love your religion more then don't compete in a sport that requires you to wear less, duh?

    June 10, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • aaa

      It is weightlifting sport not cat walk!! Seems you can't read or you read but do not understand.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  5. a man who cees 2morow

    iam a muslim............ i wanna say dat she already knew everything abut d rules n regulations... she just wanted 2 get media attention and she got it... jst covering ur heard wid scarf and wearing long loose clothes dont make u a modet person....

    Mr K is so rite quote : " is that wouldn't it be considered a bit immodest and perhaps vulgar among those as conservative as muslims to have a girl be seen in public squatting and grunting.................muslim people, such acts, such cheap attentions give u nothing but negetive image......

    June 10, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  6. IHeardYourMomPlaying KoolKeithInHerCar


    June 10, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  7. BobZemko

    She looks like one of those body disposal crew from "Soylent Green".

    June 10, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • aaa

      Well, the article says he has a PhD in in electrical and computer engineering and she fights for what she believes in. That's real empowerment. Yet, you come here and comment on how she looks? How creative!!Don't have any thing better to do that bashing people!!

      June 10, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  8. FairGardern

    I wish women can do something else than weight lifting...

    June 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • sardukar

      they can always make a sandwich 😉

      June 10, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Women can do anything they chose.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  9. Suepy

    Rules are rules....If you change for one you have to change for all based on religion.....sorry start your own group of Muslims ....but we already say we cant change based on religion so why does this Muslim issues keep coming up....NO MEANS NO,

    June 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • 9ja

      So what if she claimed she wanted to wear the scarf but not for religious reasons,will you allow her?

      June 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Maryam

      Rules are man made and are always capable of being modified. Entire regimes are being taken down and you want to convince me a dress code can't be bended ? I bet if God forbid she was a cancer patient no one would dare say a word. I wish to see nun's football teams as well. Faith doesnt contradict with life, its us who have implemented discriminative laws and norms.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • AlienShark

      If women are allowed (encouraged) by society to dress in whatever revealing clothing they like and do whatever revealing acts they like, then they should also be not bothered by society when they choose something they see as better. Besides, she is the one lifting the weights, she is the one fighting for what she believes..she is the one who deserves respect...who are you? What do you do? What do you fight for?

      June 10, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  10. Jose

    This is rediculous.. we live in a country that is trying to please everyone... no disrespect to her religion but rules are rules. If your religion doesnt allow you to folow it then dont do it. Whats next... is a muslim basketball player going to want to be covered up in the WNBA. Com on give me a break! Sports are sports and religion is relihion... lets not put these together!

    June 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • AlienShark

      so you disregard a woman's right to wear what she wants. I don't see how it affects you.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Mob

      Yes I agree the rules are rules but they can be changed!! If we could not have changed the rule......Women would sitll not be voting, Non whites would still be slaves. We won't be talking about gay marriage rights. Just remember there were times when all the c**p I mentioned were rules. Do you want to go back, stand still, or move forward??? Well some of us are moving forward, we may not agree with everything but hey let's moveforward together.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  11. NothingWrong

    Despite what many of the comments below suggest, she's not really imposing anything on anyone, or at least has not demonstrated that she's imposing. if the IWF is willing to hear her case, why not. The decision is their in the end. Nothing wrong with trying.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  12. Billy Bob Joe Ray Earl

    To all those who didn't quite carefully read my previous posts – please go read them again. They were satirical comments poking fun at the ignorance of a few racist non-Muslims. I myself happen to be an American-born Muslim US citizen, both patriotic to this country and devout in my faith to Islamic teachings. I apologize for any misunderstanding caused by my posts.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • k

      Since your a muslim and know the faith, then I have a question: Is it simply a matter of the body and hair being covered that deals with modesty? What I mean is, is that wouldn't it be considered a bit immodest and perhaps vulgar among those as conservative as muslims to have a girl be seen in public squatting and grunting? I know it is to lift weights, but to me, if I were modest enough to cover my body like that, then squatting and grunting in this manner would be just as vulgar an activity as being completely dressed and doing some sort of dirty dancing moves.
      I'm not judging, or at least harshly. We in Christianity have our own problems lately with dealing with hypocrisy. It is a problem saturating our entire nation.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Billy Bob Joe Ray Earl

      I'm glad you bring up such a great and interesting point. It comes down to a matter of personal opinion, as religious teachings don't delve that far down in detail. I agree with you that someone who wishes to cover up in modesty should be cautious of squatting, grunting and other such behaviors. Even aside from weightlifting, they should be conscious of anything that puts them in the spotlight to be viewed and judged. However, many other Muslims will disagree with me. They'll say (truthfully so) that Islam gives many rights to women and does not restrict them from doing anything that is not expressly forbidden in Islam. That's why this comes down to a matter of personal opinion. You'll find many Muslim females who wear the scarf but also wear tight, form fitting and trendy clothing with heels. The whole point of the scarf is to decrease the attention coming from the males surrounding the female, and is meant to be worn with flowing and non-revealing clothing. You'll also find Muslim women who don't wear the scarf but take caution to make sure their clothes aren't too tight, their figure is kept hidden away from prying eyes, and yet they manage to not look un-trendy or unattractive either.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Az Zaqqum

      Billy, the Quran says that women are to use their veil to cover their bosoms. Are you suggesting that they grew on her head?
      This has nothing to do with modesty. The Quran says not to attract attention, yes? Isn't that what she is doing? And if you quote hadith and make that equal to Quran that is considered shirk. Hadith are not sacred texts. But hadith do speak of women covering because the companions of Muhammad were watching his wives pee. Do you think that still happens?

      June 10, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  13. k

    Interesting. Just yesterday there was an article (NOT on cnn) where a girl wanted to wear her military uniform to her H.S. graduation but was refused simply because of a policy. She worked hard to earn her uniform and yetis being denied it for the occasion. This woman not only wants to wear a uniform she didn't work hard to earn, but is refusing to wear the weightlifting uniform she indeed DID earn because it shows knees and elbows?

    We are such a hypocritical nation in the crap we allow. We call evil good and good evil.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • matty

      So right K. This story has so many layers involved it would be impossible to address them all in just one blog. And most do have an element of hypocrisy.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Nonimus

      Who wears a military uniform to a graduation, except of course military academies? The graduation is celebrating the *earning* of the degree, the academic degree, if she wants to wear something she earned, wear the *robes*.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • July

      The difference is, a military uniform is not a religious thing. If that girl wanted to wear a cross around her neck and was denied because of a policy, it would have been a big deal. This woman is trying to follow her faith.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  14. Marta

    I don't have a problem altering the rules to accommodate a faith, if and only if, the accommodation of their faith does not give them an advantage in the sport. Not allowing a head scarf to play soccer is silly, how could that possibly be an advantage to the team or a disadvantage to the opposing team. That is religious discrimination. In this case it is possible they will not bend the rules because they need to see her knees and elbows and that can't be done if they are covered in clothing. That is realistic. A real NEED to see what's under the clothing makes the rule necessary and wrong to change for her case. The IWF will have to decide if they need to see her knees and elbows.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  15. Thanks for the laugh

    Hahahaha, this just made my morning. Thanks CNN for posting this ridiculous article. I hope articles to follow include "Burqa Swimming", "Hijab Beach Volleyball" and "Niqab Cycling". It'd even be nice to see "Burqa Shooting" or "Burqa Biathlon" (x-country skiing + rifle shooting) but I'm pretty sure if the Air Marshalls don't take them down, MI5 will.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  16. Waseem

    We have to appreciate these type of athletes, and give the chance to other athletes.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Sarah

      In other words, we need to respect athletes who don't want to play bo the rules? No, not in this country friend. Play by the rules of take your marbles home.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  17. Retired Army in San Antonio

    I think this is an area where she'll initially have to comprimise a bit.

    Best solution for her, at least for now.....Skin-tight body suit from neck to toe with long sleeves to the wrists......with loose fitting T-shirt (to the elbows) and loose fitting shorts (to the knees).

    June 10, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Jon

      The only problem with a full body suit is that someone will complain about it being a performance enhancing "weight lifting suit". These suit are very tight fitting and allow for minimal muscle movement and in the end greater weight lifted. Looking at the lifts she is doing someone might complain. I agree that a full suit might be the best bet for her but sadly stupid people will ruin it.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Ali

      Smart very smart answer. I like the way u think man. Veryopen minded and seriously i shud've thought of that!!! being a muslim and all u know. lol

      June 10, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  18. Ivory

    I'm pretty sure that MS. Abdullah knows that, but in case the IWF rejects her request, she can still compete at a high level by taking part in to the Women's Islamic Games, which is an international multi-sport event organized by the Islamic Federation of Women Sport( IFWS) to accomodate the needs of the Muslim Female athletes.
    Good luck

    June 10, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  19. albatross

    carry on Kulsoom!

    June 10, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  20. mm

    I respect all religions, but where do we draw the line? What happens if all religions try to impose their religious rules on sports? I believe that organizations have a right to make their rules and anyone who wants to join either abide or don't join. If I wanted to walk into a Mosque I would HAVE to REMOVE my shoes. Removing my shoes is not my custom. As a matter of fact without shoes I'm not properly dressed. If we must abide by the Islamic rules then they must abide by all other rules if they want to participate.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • viperz4

      mm: this is the stupidest comment I have read all morning. Entering a mosque is different than playing a sport. If shoes are not allowed inside a mosque you should respect that or don't enter. I don't think a woman NEEDS to take off her clothes to play a sport. It is a very male chuvinistic rule that MEN probably came up with. Watching Beach vollyball as a "sport" you wonder if this is women's freedom or they are just being portrayed as an object. Expecting women to take their clothes off is not empowering them, true freedom is to accept and respect them in all shape and forms.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Diane

      If you carried a second pair of shoes (that have never been worn outside) you could actually wear them inside a Mosque if you had a real reason to do so (medical etc...) The Mosque has to keep their carpets clean for prayers...and your outside shoes could have "stepped in something") In fact, you would only take off your shoes in areas of prayer and not the public areas like the cafeteria or nursery etc... So your OUTSIDE shoes can enter, just not on the prayer carpets. So, in relevance to this story....I feel, they too, could find a happy medium addressing the needs of the Lifting Club and that of the Muslim girl's adherence to covering.

      June 10, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Ali

      Shes not imposing. wtheck man!!!! stop lying! or whatever u doin. Im sure u wudnt want ur daughter half naked lifting weights infront of men not knowing what they are thinking unless u just dont have respect for ur daughter.

      June 10, 2011 at 11:15 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.