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.