The unedited version of the Friday Times article by Sonya Rehman at her blog. Copy below.

Worth the Weight

By Sonya Rehman

Slim and petite, one would never guess (at first glance) that Pakistani-American, Kulsoom Abdullah, has been Weightlifting – at both the national and international level since 2010 – in addition to Crossfitting.

Kulsoom Abdullah – Photo by: Joey Ivansco

Born and bred in the US, Abdullah’s parents (born in Pakistan; her father from Tangi and her mother from Charsadda) immigrated to America years ago, before Abdullah’s birth. In 2005, Abdullah’s father passed away in Pakistan, leaving behind his wife and five children – of which Abdullah is the eldest. A Computer Engineer by profession, with a PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology, I first discovered Abdullah through a picture of hers that an acquaintance had shared over Facebook. In the picture Abdullah is featured Weightlifting – in hijab. Intrigued, I googled Abdullah and contacted her via her website in the hopes that she would agree to being interviewed over email. She agreed.

At the national level, Abdullah attended the ‘US National Competition’ in 2011, and in the same year she represented Pakistan (at the international level) at the ‘2011 World Weightlifting Championships’. For the latter, Abdullah was not only the first female to compete, but she was also the first female to compete in hijab. And this year, Abdullah represented Pakistan in South Korea, at the ‘2012 Asian Weightlifting Championships.’

Photo: Charlie Neibergall

However, in 2010 after qualifying to compete at the American Open, the USA Weightlifting Committee barred Abdullah from contending in the competition due to her clothing – clothing modifications were simply not allowed. Participants had to adhere to wearing a ‘singlet’ – particular clothing for athletes which sort of looks like a swimsuit with shorts.

Due to this, Abdullah mentions that her “training was affected,” from January 2011, onwards till May (of the same year). After consulting with various lawyers and civil rights groups, Abdullah was “encouraged” to “keep trying to find a way.”

Eventually in June 2011, CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) found out about Abdullah’s story and issued a press release asking the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) to aid Abdullah in reaching out to the IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) to allow Abdullah to compete fully covered, in hijab.  Luckily, a USOC representative, also part of the IWF forwarded the story to the IWF, which they, as Abdullah states, “agreed to discuss [the issue] at their next meeting.”

Photo: Bob Andres

“I created a presentation, converted it to video with a voiceover by me.  I gave this file to the USOC representative and then they passed this along to the IWF for their meeting,” states Abdullah.

Towards the end of June, the IWF finally issued an official press release in which they permitted a full body ‘unitard’ and a head scarf. Abdullah had triumphed.

What inspired you to take up Olympic Weightlifting and Crossfitting? Was it something you always wanted to do?

I started Taekwondo in graduate school.  I generally wanted to be stronger so I did what I could in the gym on my campus. Close to graduation and after, I stopped Taekwondo.  I found out about Olympic Lifts (snatch and clean and jerk) from a website.  I thought that those lifts would be great skills to learn, while also getting strong, because they incorporate strength plus power, speed, timing and skill.  I could not find a place to learn how to do them, but found out about Crossfit, and the fact that their programming incorporates Olympic Lifts.

I did both Crossfit workouts and learned to Olympic Lift as the gym had coaches who were also competitive Weightlifters.  I started end of 2007. I loved to lift, and I would attend separate class sessions on weightlifting in addition to doing Crossfit workouts. Finally, at the beginning of 2010, my coach convinced me to go to an open local Weightlifting competition in March 2010.  I liked it, and the community of athletes and coaches I interacted with.  So I continued to go to competitions, and ultimately in October 2010, I lifted enough to qualify for the American Open 2010 in December and the nationals.

Photo: Mohamed Sadek

Was your family supportive?

Yes.  Whatever shocks they could have, they got used to it when I practiced Taekwondo.  My mother cannot see me compete, and it has taken her time to see videos of me doing lifts without getting scared.  My father was very happy and supportive of my Taekwondo and educational pursuits. I know he would have felt the same with Weightlifting. One male cousin admitted I could lift more than he could.  Generally, everyone is very happy, supportive and proud of my efforts – the Weightlifting and the clothing modification.

Is it a myth that you have to be buff to Weightlift?

Yes it is.  Anyone can Weightlift.  You can be an 80-year-old grandmother or a small child (many start very young to reach high international levels).  Those who bodybuild will be the ones that look buff, but their programming, diet and the time they spend are very different.  Building muscles in general, takes a lot of work and time, it doesn’t happen overnight.

Photo: Peter C Tiritilli

What has the experience been like, competing in national Olympic Weightlifting competitions?

When I went to the first one, it really was the culmination of all the efforts and time spent – the boundaries were officially broken.  For the next one I had less stress leading up to it and was not rushed, so I had more fun and got to meet and interact with other people, such as athletes and coaches. It is a great experience to see people perform in person; you also get feedback and encouragement from other coaches.  The other advantage to the second competition, I felt that, whoever had negative feelings over the decision for the clothing modification, probably either got over those feelings, or felt neutral.  Time must have showed that it was not a big deal – the sport did not change.

Kulsoom Abdullah at the Asian Championships in Korea in 2012

What about the international competitions – how different was that from competing at the national level?

At the two international competitions I have competed at, I represented Pakistan.  The first was a different kind of stress than my first USA national competition.  I had one month to know I was going (the Pakistan Weightlifting Federation approved of my participation and registered me for the competition) and prepare.  They are more costly, especially because of the international airfare for myself and my coach, so it took more effort and funds for me to go.  There are also more athletes in comparison to national competitions. I felt that everyone I met was supportive of my participation and happy Pakistan was represented.

Photo: Joey Ivansco

What advice would you like to give young Pakistani women interested in sports as a serious career pursuit, but who are uncertain and perhaps fearful – given societal restrictions?

I can sympathize and to an extent and empathize with the societal issues in Pakistan.  I do not want to state though that I fully understand, since I live in America, so this is with a grain of salt. Generally, if she is interested, she should do it and not worry about what others think.  This attitude won’t let you be happy in life, whether it is Weightlifting or anything else.  If I did that, I would have never picked up a barbell (though I know the issues I deal with, some are similar and some are not to the women living in Pakistan).  Fortunately, I was able to find a supportive environment, even with the way I dress.

I know in Pakistan, the challenges will vary depending on where you live, and what your family is like.  I would say try to find a supportive environment if you can.  Your family at first might not like it, but if they really love you, they will come to understand this is good for you and it makes you happy, in spite of whatever stereotypes and misunderstands there are about females and sports.  Some might say you will not find a husband…but do you really want a husband that is not supportive of you?

If you cannot find support or there is fear, there are things you can do at home with little or no equipment.  This will help those who want to be active.  For competitions, you can try to be proactive, recruit other females for a sport.  Try to convince local government or schools to support some type of intramural or traveling competitions, even if it’s to a nearby city – it’ll help get things started.  

Photo: Bob Andres

What’s next for you?

For Weightlifting, I would like to qualify as a 53kg lifter instead of 48kg lifter for the USA national competitions.  The next one is the ‘American Open Weightlifting Championships’ which will be held in December 2012.

The past year has been pretty hectic.  I am hoping to get some time to reflect and figure out what I could do going forward.  I will need to spend some time on finding a job because Weightlifting does not make an income. Fortunately, I live with family so that helps me out tremendously.
I did the Weightlifting because I wanted to and liked it, and kept going with it.  I didn’t even have goals of competing, but that just happened along the way, as did everything else till now.

I also hope that in spite of how I continue to do, it will help encourage other women to try a sport and compete. Definitely, if I knew and was exposed to this when I was younger, I would have started back when I was a child.

The Friday Times