Posted on June 30, 2011

Muslim Weightlifter Fights to Compete, Hijabi-Style

Kari Huus, MSNBC, June 27, 2011

She can “deadlift” 240 pounds, and “snatch” more than 100. But, as Kulsoom Abdullah recently learned, she can do neither in a national competition unless she agrees to bare her arms and legs.

That is a non-starter for Abdullah, a 35-year-old Muslim-American who says that such exposure would violate her deeply held religious beliefs. But rather than giving up on her dreams of competitive weightlifting, she’s pressing for a change in the sport’s international rules.

Abdullah may be the only woman in the world who lifts in sanctioned competitions while wearing a hijab–the traditional Muslim dress that covers the head, arms and legs. But her dilemma is one that is cropping up in many organized sports in which Muslim women are seeking to compete, sometimes for the first time.


Abdullah’s wardrobe hasn’t slowed her down. While she was in graduate school at Georgia Tech, getting a PhD in computer networking, she reached the black belt level in taekwondo, the Korean martial art. She started lifting weights about four years ago as part of her overall training regimen. It turned into a passion.


International rules

At present, the rules require arms and legs to be bare so judges can see when elbows and knees are “locked” to determine if a lift is successful. Most competitors wear a form-fitting body suit with short sleeves and short pants called a singlet.

Abdullah argues that there are clothing alternatives–close-fitting sports gear with long sleeves and leggings–that could meet the requirements for modesty and fairness.

But when she sought to compete in the 2011 US National Weightlifting Tournament scheduled for July in Council Bluffs, Iowa, using a modified uniform, USA Weightlifting, the sport’s national governing body, slammed her to the mat.


So Abdullah is taking her case to the IWF. She has created a 43-page presentation detailing clothing options that she says would meet her Muslim modesty requirements, allow competition officials to make clear calls and avoid concerns that she was obtaining any competitive advantage.

With the help of a lawyer, Muslim activists and the US Olympic Committee, her case is on the agenda of the IWF for consideration during its annual meeting in Penang, Malaysia, that began on Sunday. A decision could be announced within days.


The invention of the “burqini”–a swimsuit with full-length sleeves and leggings–has allowed women to observe modesty and work as lifeguards, and may pave the way for Muslim women to compete in Olympic swimming.

Still, Muslim dress continues to be an issue, as occurred recently when the Iranian women’s soccer team was barred from World Cup competition over uniforms designed to meet modesty requirements. Officials of the International Federation of Association Football, FIFA, said the head coverings posed a risk of strangulation.