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Woman weightlifter fights to compete in hijab

Woman weightlifter fights to compete in hijab

by Liz Goodwin

A 35-year-old weightlifter is battling to be able to compete in the sport she loves while wearing a hijab instead of the body-hugging uniform that’s required.

Kulsoom Abdullah, who was born in the United States to Pakistani parents, discovered weightlifting at her gym, Crossfit, in Atlanta in 2008. She entered her first open competition last year, and was thrilled to find out that she was actually pretty good in the competitive sport. She can lift 70 kilos (about 154 pounds) to her shoulders, and 60 kilos (or about 132 pounds) over her head, in a move called the “clean-and-jerk.” Last December, she qualified for the American Open Weightlifting Championships, which would have been her first national competition.

But when her coaches asked whether she would be able to wear her modified uniform–which covers everything but her face, hands, and feet–the organizers told told them no.

Abdullah talked to some lawyer friends, who told her that other athletes had won their bids to wear different clothing for religious reasons. So she tried again, this time personally writing to USA Weightlifting with her request, and asking the group if it could compromise on a uniform.

Officials with the group wrote back and said they had to follow the rules of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), which mandates collarless uniforms and doesn’t allow exceptions.

“I was really disappointed because I was really looking forward to it,” she told The Lookout. “I had never thought I would qualify at the national level.”

“It is like saying, if you are different, you can not compete,” she wrote on her web site. “I am not asking people to change, I am just asking to participate and be able to dress the way I do.”

Now, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, is taking up Abdullah’s cause, and trying to lobby weightlifting organizations to revise their rules in time for her to compete in a July national competition. CAIR officials are arguing that USA Weightlifting is in violation of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which forbids sports bodies from discriminating based on “race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin.” Not allowing Abdullah to wear her hijab is discrimination, CAIR maintains.

USA Weightlifting told The Lookout in a statement that “uniforms must not cover either the knees or the elbows because the judges must be able to see that the lifter has locked out his or her knees and elbows in order for the lift to be deemed completed.” The IWF will discuss Abdullah’s request at a June 26 meeting in Penang, Malaysia. United States Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Jones says the group is committed to being “inclusive” but that it’s up to the IWF to decide if the modified uniform would provide a “competitive advantage.”

While the weightlifting powers-that-be have decided against her for now, Abdullah says she never feels out of place when training six days a week or when in open competitions with other lifters.

“They’re very encouraging,” she says of her fellow weightlifters, who are mostly men. “They’re really nice people and they’re very welcoming.”

As female competitor, “you’re always going to feel a little different,” she said of the traditionally male-dominated sport.

She says her family, who she lives with, is also supportive. “I mean, it is different, so they were [hesitant] … but they said as long as you don’t get hurt that’s fine. Sometimes it’s a little bit scary for my mom but I think she’s used to it now.”

Abdullah has a PhD in electrical computer engineering from Georgia Tech, and still does research at the university. She said what she likes about lifting is “there’s a lot of technique involved. Someone could be very strong and not be able to lift as much.”

Excelling at lifting “gave me confidence,” she said, adding that she hopes more women will join up if they hear about their story.

Abdullah’s problem is not unique in the world of sports. The Iranian woman’s soccer team showed up to a Olympic qualifying match against Jordan wearing hijabs on Sunday, and officials with the global soccer governing body, FIFA, promptly disqualified them. FIFA banned the headscarves in 2007, citing choking hazards.

This is what a standard weighlifting uniform looks like, as modeled by Mabel Mosquera at the 2004 Olympics:

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  • Nur Alia


    thank you for understanding. You have said the best things here I have ever seen you say. I am actually surprised that we agree on some things.

  • Nur Alia


    That is a most excellent suggestion. It solves all the problems that would be objectionable to.

    I do like the sports wear web pages that some of you offered in the comments. I practice tai chi chuan, and also I like to wear the tudong. I would like to know if there is swimwear that are hijab compliant…which would not be uncomfortable to swim in, and you can have fun too at the same time.

    If any one knows, please let me know of something I may try.

  • Dan

    Well some posters here try to make it seem like it’s all a conspiracy against Muslims. Such a view seems to be held by many, and never said the female participant held that belief.

  • Khushboo

    This has nothing to do with playing the “victimization card” but instead has to do with dressing up due to religious reasons. I applaud her for being tough enough to compete and here people say that Muslim women are being subjugated. HA! She simply wants to cover up her legs and arms and from what I can see from the picture above, the judges can easily see the knees and elbows without it being bare.

  • Dan

    They annoy me too, and I rightfully call out Israel supporters who pull the same card in order to justify their love of that state’s actions.

  • Friend


    Do these ring any bells? “they-hate-us-because-we-are-jews”, “they-hate-us-because-we-are-israelis”, “they-hate-us-because-we-are-the-chosen-ones” etc etc

  • Abdullah

    I’ll have to agree with Dan on this one. Its a bit unfair, yes, but nothing that is really “loony”. Honestly, the Iranian female soccer thing is more bothersome to me, because at least in soccer/football, there is no real need for wearing shorts. In this case however, observation of the elbows and knees is something that is of significance. That being said, the Iranian female football team apparently got trounced in a practice game, so they probably wouldn’t have made it to the World Cup…

  • sabriyah

    @ Dan, thanks.

  • Dan

    It gets really annoying when people keep pulling the Islamophobia card over and over with stuff like this. There are some people here who have a serious victimization mentality and continue to pull the “they-hate-me-’cause-I’m-Muslim” card in everything. sabriyah’s post is one of the few comments on this post that gets it. Not everything is a conspiracy against Muslims.

  • sabriyah

    The issue seems to be not so much the headcovering but the outfit. As a hijab-wearing Muslim, I applaud any woman who chooses to wear it, but I think that by not showing her elbows and knees, it gives her an unfair advantage in that the judges can’t see if she’s locked in position as easily as they could judge her opponents. That being said, wouldn’t it make more sense to compete with only female judges and without an audience so that she could be fairly judged? It’s awesome that she’s taken on such a male-dominated sport, and female judges are surely hard to find, but wearing hijab sometimes means that you can’t have it all.

    Sorry if I sound like a defeatist, but rules are rules, and hijabis understand that very well.

  • Farlow

    In Australia there was a tragic fatal karting accident involving a scarf worn by a muslim lady. Let’s hope there are no more incidents like that.

  • DrM


    LOL! Contraband indeed.

    I wonder how long before the obligatory anti-Pakistani post by Danny boy.

  • Dawood

    Oh nope, I just know of a few people who have used it and said it’s fantastic for sports training. 🙂 And if organisations/people are worried about the safety issue of hijabs being wrapped around the neck, loose over the hair etc. (as normal ones are, and it appears in the picture on the article somewhat), then it looks like products like these take all that into account.

    I for one admire the creativity in developing such products/garments, which allow religiously-observant Muslim women to take part in and enjoy sporting pursuits. It’s also interesting how all these products were developed by women in the first place, but that’s another issue entirely.

  • /\ I like them, by someone you know? I know the Malaysian lady who ‘invented’ the Muslima Swimsuit 😀

  • Dawood

    I hope she considers using something like the ResportOn, as it seems to be more and more widely-accepted for various sports.

  • Nur Alia

    I am a little confused

    First…non Muslims claim that wearing hijab is restrictive and a ‘symbol’ of oppression. They think also that women are not allowed to compete in sports.

    Then…a woman who wants to compete in a sport, who wants to wear her hijab can not…because of the rules prohibiting her clothing.

    So…which is it…who is oppressing women here. It is almost as if we dont have a choice any way we turn in the west.

    Perhaps this is purposeful.

  • Anj

    That scumbag peter king has announced another series of hearings on Muslim radicalisation. Do these people never learn? I wonder who the panel of “experts” is likely to be?

  • mindy1

    As long as it is not a safety issue, let her dress hwo she wants

  • Michael Akkawi

    …CAIR is installing Sharia into the US through sports blah blah blah…

    Spencer will say this

  • khan4

    The reason why they don’t let them wear hijabs is because they are performance enhancing. It’s just like doing HGH, blood doping, etc…..

  • Salam

    This reminds me of the female Iranian football team who didn’t get to play with hijabs either. I don’t know the technicalities with the knees or whatever, but in general I think they should encourage female muslims to partake in sports, rather than excluding them…

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