BY: Stephen Russ
Kulsoom Abdullah is an American born Muslim with deep roots in Pakistan and a PhD holding graduate of Georgia Tech. She is kind, honest, and extremely talented.
She is also a weightlfter who was denied the right to compete because of the modest way she dresses.
For Kulsoom, athletics seemed out of reach from the start. “I didn’t know where I could go or how to do it, it was hard to know what sports to be involved in” she told me in an interview. As a Muslim woman in the southern United States it was difficult to find out which sports would accommodate her religious practice of modest dress. While a graduate student she discovered a Taekwondo class, but had concerns about how to practice her faith while competing. She asked if her traditional Muslim dress would be a problem and if she could choose not to work directly with men in her class. The teacher was extremely accommodating, a response which became an all too rare part of her story.
Kulsoom excelled at Taekwondo and ascended to the rank of black belt, but she found herself wanting to grow stronger. It was then that she discovered free weights and fell for, she says, “the “speed, the power, and the technique” of Olympic weightlifting. She had discovered the weightlifting style via the internet, but the coaches at her gym refused to teach it to her for fear that she would hurt herself.
Not to be deterred, she discovered Crossfit, a specialized gym with coaches who take part in weightlifting competitions. Kulsoom joined and began to grow stronger, finally competing in local competitions in March of 2010. In October. A mere 9 months later, Kulsoom was ready to compete nationally. Both she and her coaches did not foresee any problem with her competing while wearing her unique hijab-based uniform. To her recollection, “this was a case where nobody had ever asked before, everyone just wore the singlet.” With the competition in December, Kulsoom received an answer from the committee.
The answer was no.
The committee had determined that Kulsoom would not be allowed to alter the traditional weightlifting singlet – and they were staunchly opposed. Kulsoom recalls making several suggestions to them: “I thought maybe they would just let me go and lift, but not have my scores count. They said no to that too.” They would not even allow her to walk out onto the platform in her modified uniform “I was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t compete,” says Kulsoom, “I thought, why am I doing this in the first place?”
For her, a naturally quiet person with many friends who didn’t even know she lifted weights, it was hard to imagine fighting the decision further. It was those same friends though, Muslims and others alike, who encouraged her to explore her rights as a competitor. At that point she wrote a letter to the USA Weightlifting Committee, providing her record and many examples of sports that are willing to accommodate for different dress at the international level.
Despite her plea, the answer was a firm no, but with a glimmer of hope. The USA Weightlifting Committee didn’t have the power to grant her request, but communicated that the International Weightlifting Federation could.
After this response the situation began to impact her lifting; “Sometimes it was hard because a lot of the lifts are mental,” she said, “you have to really be focused.” It was in those down days that her story became known to CAIR, the Council on American-Islaimic Relations, an advocacy group that seeks to take on Muslim stereotyping and pursue equality.
Until this point, Kulsoom had been taking most of the rejection inward. However, the research she had done about women who faced similar challenges combined with the interest of an organization like CAIR, made her realize that this cause was much bigger than her individual situation: “Part of that was my faith, and part of it was thinking about other people, “ she says, “not necessarily just Muslim women, but women of other faiths that dress conservatively and maybe had never thought about being in a sport.”
Despite her resistance to being in the public eye, Kulsoom agreed to have a press release issued in expectation of the International Weightlifting Federation meeting that took place in June. The IWF is the body that determines the rules that the national competitions follow, and Kulsoom hoped they would hear her request. The press release was intended to bring awareness, and it did. There was a huge influx of support and media interested in her story. She even got coverage in her families’ native country of Pakistan.
Of course, detractors were fervent as well. The media articles published after the press release were often followed by disdainful comments. Many claimed that if she wanted to be in the sport then she should play by the same rules. Her response to that claim represents her overall attitude – “If you can include more people, isn’t that the whole attitude of the sport?”
Another, more alarming response, has been an expressed fear that she and other Muslims are trying to take over the sport and change it. This was particularly difficult to see for someone who didn’t desire the public eye: “if people look at my story they don’t even know me or who I am,” says Kulsoom, “I’m just asking to participate, I’m not telling people they have to do this.”
Support was also not consistent within her religion. While many Muslims have supported her, some even asking her to come speak to their youth, more conservative Muslims expressed concerns over weightlifting also being a male sport or over a woman being out in such a public position. Even with those discouragements, Kulsoom was positive: “I can understand that perspective and the context that it would exist in. If you’re in a different country and the situation is different.”
This heated, yet supportive, media blitz led up to the IWF meeting where a decision would be made. Kulsoom developed a presentation and planned to attend, but she was not allowed to. The outlook was initially bleak, and all she could do was get the presentation out on her own and wait. She recalls praying “that whatever is going to be the best situation would happen.” Then, just a few days after the meeting, she received their response.
It was a yes.
After a series of setbacks, Kulsoom Abdullah was finally cleared for national competition. She would be able to compete while dressing in a way that honors her religion. The burden was lifted. Kulsoom and her advocates were thrilled, and now she has already begun training for the next competition.
While the focus of her story has been on her Muslim beliefs, Kulsoom hopes that her inspirational story can impact all women. She hopes it helps them “to consider all sports. A lot of women won’t think about weightlifting because it is considered a masculine sport.” Those statements tell you all you need to know about Kulsoom Abdullah. She is strong in both mind and body, and her most central hope is that others would be inspired by her story. She also hopes that these changes will ultimately help the sport by allowing more diversity.
Though much has been accomplished, this is just the beginning of her journey to national competition. Now Kulsoom must secure sponsorships and donations in order to enter the competitions. She will continue to pursue her dream of competing in national weightlifting competitions, and you can follow her at her website!
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