When Kulsoom Abdullah started weightlifting three years ago,
she never thought she would be the first headscarf-donning Muslim American to
compete in the USA National Weightlifting Championships - America's most
prestigious weightlifting competition.
What fueled Abdullah's doubts and set her apart from fellow competitors was her dress code. As a devout Muslim, she chose to wear modest clothing - long-sleeved T-shirts and loose pants - garb that didn't conform with official competition rules.
But the Atlanta, Georgia, native was given her chance in late June when the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) modified its competing rules to allow tight-fitting, body-length unitards for the first time.
Now, weightlifters who participate in competitions organized by any IWF member organizations worldwide - not just in the U.S. - can choose to participate in uniforms that cover their arms and legs.
As a result, Abdullah, on top of being probably the only PhD in electrical and computer engineering who can "deadlift" 111 kilos, today qualifies for national championships while wearing a headscarf and long sleeves.
USA Weightlifting - a member
organization of the United States Olympic Committee governed by the IWF - had
the same concern. The organization informed Abdullah she could not compete in
the December 2010 national tournaments because covering her arms, elbows and
An appeal from Abdullah and CAIR prompted an IWF technical committee to debate the dress code rules in Malaysia during the last week of June, ahead of July championships. The debate ended up paving the way toward a change in the rules.
Abdullah as trailblazer
While conceding that some clothing could be used to mask certain body parts and manipulate performance, Abdullah ended up putting together a 43-slide presentation to demonstrate to the IWF how, in her case, judges can see her joints even through a long-sleeved, tight-fitting unitard or looser singlet.
CAIR's Abbas said that Abdullah essentially won this fight on
"Kulsoom was her own best advocate, she's an iconoclast: a PhD in electric engineering that can deadlift 150 pounds over her head.... She was a uniquely capable person to push for change," said he.
Abdullah's case was the "textbook example of how it should work," said Abbas, adding that if the IWF had rejected her appeal, it would have amounted to discrimination.
"When... an organization is adhering to [an] old rule to exclude someone new that wants to participate, the failure to adjust is indicative of a discriminatory mindset," he said.
Abdullah, who now looks forward to competing in the National Weightlifting Championships later this month, says unfortunately many Muslim women get caught in a vicious cycle of stereotypes.
"It's a shame because the Muslim world is being criticized - they say you're oppressing women or not empowering them... and then when a woman chooses to cover and participate, it's also seen as a problem."
Abdullah says she hopes her case will be an example for other female athletes who choose to dress modestly while competing in any sport, regardless of their faith. As for people adverse to change - she calls on them to try to keep their minds open about it.
... Payvand News - 07/07/11 ... --