News / USA

IWF Changes Dress Code Rules, Lets Muslim Weightlifter Compete

Kulsoom Abdullah competing at a 2010 Open Championship in the US state of Georgia
Kulsoom Abdullah competing at a 2010 Open Championship in the US state of Georgia


When Kulsoom Abdullah started weightlifting three years ago, she never thought she would be the first headscarf-donning Muslim American to compete in the USA National Weightlifting Championships - America’s most prestigious weightlifting competition.

What fueled Abdullah’s doubts and set her apart from fellow competitors was her dress code. As a devout Muslim, she chose to wear modest clothing - long-sleeved T-shirts and loose pants – garb that didn’t conform with official competition rules.

But the Atlanta, Georgia, native was given her chance in late June when the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), in response to a challenge by Abdullah, modified its competing rules to allow tight-fitting, body-length unitards for the first time.

Watch the interview with Kulsoom Abdullah:

Game changer

Now, weightlifters who participate in competitions organized by any IWF member organizations worldwide – not just in the U.S. – can choose to participate in uniforms that cover their arms and legs.

As a result, Abdullah, on top of being probably the only PhD in electrical and computer engineering who can “deadlift” 111 kilos, today qualifies for national championships while wearing a headscarf and long sleeves.

Kulsoom Abdullah preparing to compete
Kulsoom Abdullah preparing to compete
"Weightlifting is an Olympic sport open for all athletes to participate without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin in accordance with the principles of the Olympic Charter and values," says IWF President Tamas Ajan. "This rule modification has been considered in the spirit of fairness, equality and inclusion."

The IWF’s decision is a bold move considering its former rules stipulated that “costumes” had to be collarless and couldn’t cover elbows or knees; the rules even specified how high socks could go and how much skin bandages could cover.


Follow-up report from the competition by Tala Hadavi:

Against other odds

The rule change did not come in a vacuum. A few weeks before the IWF’s decision passed, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) banned the Iranian women’s soccer team from competing in a pre-Olympic game against Jordan, and the Quebec Soccer Foundation fired a Canadian female teen referee. Both governing bodies pointed to headscarfs and untraditional clothing as violating competition rules.

“Those are preposterous outcomes … A woman should be able to participate in sport and abide by her faith; those two things are not mutually exclusive,” said Gadeir Abbas, the staff attorney with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) who had been working on the case of the Canadian referee. At the same time, he praised the IWF for taking the lead on this issue saying its decision reflects well on its leadership.

Rules as “works in progress”

John Duff, chief executive officer of USA Weightlifting, said modifying the competition rules for inclusivity was already on the IWF’s agenda. But he also stressed that rules are never set in place to discriminate.

“The [original] rules were not discriminatory in any shape or form. The rules are the rules, and every federation that is a member organization of the international federation complies and follows those rules,” he said. “They aren’t set for a particular country or a particular nationality or people or place…Every country and everybody who participates in the sport follows it.”

IWF officials have repeatedly emphasized that the headscarf by itself was never a concern. But, as Duff pointed out, rules are generally there to prevent athletes from gaining an unfair advantage by using extra material to hide a support mechanism on a joint, for instance. He explained that long clothing could make it difficult for judges to determine whether an athlete’s elbows or knees are locked.

Kulsoom Abdullah sporting a medal she earned at a 2010 Open Championship in the US state of Georgia
Kulsoom Abdullah sporting a medal she earned at a 2010 Open Championship in the US state of Georgia
USA Weightlifting – a member organization of the United States Olympic Committee governed by the IWF – had the same concern. The organization informed Abdullah she could not compete in the December 2010 national tournaments because covering her arms, elbows and knees violated IWF rules.

An appeal from Abdullah and CAIR prompted an IWF technical committee to debate the dress code rules in Malaysia during the last week of June, ahead of  July championships. The debate ended up paving the way toward a change in the rules.

Abdullah as trailblazer

While conceding that some clothing could be used to mask certain body parts and manipulate performance, Abdullah ended up putting together a 43-slide presentation to demonstrate to the IWF how, in her case, judges can see her joints even through a long-sleeved, tight-fitting unitard or looser singlet.

CAIR’s Abbas said that Abdullah essentially won this fight on her own.

“Kulsoom was her own best advocate, she’s an iconoclast: a PhD in electric engineering that can deadlift 150 pounds over her head…. She was a uniquely capable person to push for change,” said he.

Abdullah’s case was the “textbook example of how it should work,” said Abbas, adding that if the IWF had rejected her appeal, it would have amounted to discrimination.

“When… an organization is adhering to [an] old rule to exclude someone new that wants to participate, the failure to adjust is indicative of a discriminatory mindset,” he said.

Abdullah, who now looks forward to competing in the National Weightlifting Championships later this month, says unfortunately many Muslim women get caught in a vicious cycle of stereotypes.

“It’s a shame because the Muslim world is being criticized – they say you’re oppressing women or not empowering them… and then when a woman chooses to cover and participate, it’s also seen as a problem.”

Abdullah says she hopes her case will be an example for other female athletes who choose to dress modestly while competing in any sport, regardless of their faith. As for people adverse to change – she calls on them to try to keep their minds open about it.

You May Like

Guatemala Mudslide Death Toll Rises to 86

Death toll is expected to continue to rise as emergency crews dig through tons of earth for an estimated 350 people still missing More

Debris Found in Search for Missing Ship

Objects located Sunday have not yet been confirmed to be from the 240 meter container ship, El Faro, which disappeared in the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, according to US Coast Guard More

Survivor: Gunman Spared 'Lucky One' to Give Police Message

Law enforcement official says a manifesto of several pages was recovered; contents not revealed More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs