Muslim faith requires her to cover body, which is against international rules, possibly ending her Olympic dream
Weighty issue for Muslim lifter from America
Kulsoom Abdullah took up weightlifting a couple of years ago when she was looking to get stronger. She quickly grew to love the sport, entering local competitions and even allowing herself to imagine one day making it to the Olympics.
But her dream was crushed last week. Abdullah, a 35 year old from Atlanta, Georgia, was barred from entering the US championships next month because her Muslim faith requires that she cover her arms, legs and head - which violates international rules governing weightlifting attire.
"I'd hate to think that just because you dress a certain way, you can't participate in sports," Abdullah said. "I don't want other women who dress like me to say, 'I can't get involved in that sport' and get discouraged.
"It would be nice to have an environment where it wouldn't be an issue of how you dress or having different beliefs and faiths."
The debate over the attire of Muslim women in sport is not new.
Last week, the Iran women's football team had to forfeit an Olympic qualifier in Jordan because the players wanted to wear the traditional hijab headscarf. Fifa defended its decision by saying the scarves are banned for safety reasons; the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Fifa "dictators and colonists who want to impose their lifestyle on others" and vowed stick up for the rights of the Iranian players.
Muslim women have competed in other sports, such as athletics, wearing neck-to-ankle bodysuits and the hijab, most notably Roqaya al Gassra of Bahrain, who made it to the semi-finals of the 200 metres at the Beijing Olympics.
"What we hear all the time is, 'You've got to empower Muslim women around the world'," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has taken up Abdullah's cause. "Well, how can you empower a Muslim woman more than being a weightlifter?
"She should be encouraged and helped along in this process. There shouldn't be arbitrary roadblocks placed in her path."
Some sports' rules designed to keep an athlete from gaining an advantage could run foul of a particular religion. Swimming, for instance, has banned high-tech bodysuits that led to a rash of world records, ruling they compromised the integrity of the sport. Now women can wear only shoulder-to-knee suits that leave their arms and lower legs exposed.
Abdullah, however, made it clear that she is not trying to gain any sort of competitive edge. When first starting out, she was allowed to enter local meets wearing attire that made her comfortable: loosefitting exercise pants, a tightfitting long-sleeve shirt with a T-shirt over it, and the headscarf.
As she attempted to move up to higher-level competitions, she ran up against International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) rules, which forbid suits that cover either the knees or elbows because judges must be able to see that both have been locked out to complete a lift.
But Abdullah said a tightfitting shirt allows judges to get a good look at her elbows. And, if it meant ensuring a level playing field, she would be willing to wear a leg covering that conforms to her religion but allows the judges to determine whether she has completed a lift. Considering all the advances in athletic apparel, that should not be a major issue.
Abdullah got a bit of good news last week when USA Weightlifting agreed to take her case to the IWF this month. If the IWF agrees to alter its rules, she might still get a chance to do some snatches and clean-and-jerks at next month's US championships.
While she is not yet lifting at an Olympic level, she has not given up on that dream.
"She's not seeking any kind of advantage. She's seeking to maintain her religious principles," Hooper said. "In an atmosphere of goodwill, these things can always be resolved."