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.
“It 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.”
The IWF 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.”