Weighty issue for Muslim lifter from America
Jun 13, 2011
Kulsoom Abdullah took up weightlifting a couple of
years ago when she was looking to get stronger. She quickly grew to love
the sport, entering local competitions and even allowing herself to
imagine one day making it to the Olympics.
But her dream was crushed last week. Abdullah, a 35 year old from Atlanta,
Georgia, was barred from entering the US championships next month
because her Muslim faith requires that she cover her arms, legs and head
– which violates international rules governing weightlifting attire.
“I’d hate to think that just because you dress a certain way, you can’t
participate in sports,” Abdullah said. “I don’t want other women who
dress like me to say, ‘I can’t get involved in that sport’ and get
“It would be nice to have an environment where it wouldn’t be an issue
of how you dress or having different beliefs and faiths.”
The debate over the attire of Muslim women in sport is not new.
Last week, the
Iran women’s football team had to forfeit an Olympic qualifier in Jordan
because the players wanted to wear the traditional hijab headscarf.
Fifa defended its decision by saying the scarves are banned for safety
reasons; the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Fifa
“dictators and colonists who want to impose their lifestyle on others”
and vowed stick up for the rights of the Iranian players.
women have competed in other sports, such as athletics, wearing
neck-to-ankle bodysuits and the hijab, most notably Roqaya al Gassra of
Bahrain, who made it to the semi-finals of the 200 metres at the Beijing
“What we hear all the time is, ‘You’ve got to empower
Muslim women around the world’,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for
the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has taken up Abdullah’s
cause. “Well, how can you empower a Muslim woman more than being a
“She should be encouraged and helped along in this process.
There shouldn’t be arbitrary roadblocks placed in her path.”
Some sports’ rules designed to keep an athlete from gaining an advantage
could run foul of a particular religion. Swimming, for instance, has
banned high-tech bodysuits that led to a rash of world records, ruling
they compromised the integrity of the sport. Now women can wear only
shoulder-to-knee suits that leave their arms and lower legs exposed.
Abdullah, however, made it clear that she is not trying to gain any sort of
competitive edge. When first starting out, she was allowed to enter
local meets wearing attire that made her comfortable: loosefitting
exercise pants, a tightfitting long-sleeve shirt with a T-shirt over it,
and the headscarf.
As she attempted to move up to higher-level
competitions, she ran up against International Weightlifting Federation
(IWF) rules, which forbid suits that cover either the knees or elbows
because judges must be able to see that both have been locked out to
complete a lift.
But Abdullah said a tightfitting shirt allows
judges to get a good look at her elbows. And, if it meant ensuring a
level playing field, she would be willing to wear a leg covering that
conforms to her religion but allows the judges to determine whether she
has completed a lift. Considering all the advances in athletic apparel,
that should not be a major issue.
Abdullah got a bit of good news last week when USA Weightlifting
agreed to take her case to the IWF this month. If the IWF agrees to
alter its rules, she might still get a chance to do some snatches and
clean-and-jerks at next month’s US championships.
While she is not yet lifting at an Olympic level, she has not given up
on that dream.
“She’s not seeking any kind of advantage. She’s seeking to maintain her
religious principles,” Hooper said. “In an atmosphere of goodwill, these
things can always be resolved.”