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: