Looking to get stronger, Kulsoom Abdullah took up weightlifting a couple of years ago. She quickly grew to love the male-dominated sport, entering local competitions and even allowing herself to dream of one day making it to the Olympics.
She'd like to see how far this passion might take her, but not if it means compromising her religious beliefs.
Seems perfectly reasonable.
Yet Abdullah, a 35-year-old from Atlanta, has been barred from entering the U.S. championships in Iowa next month. The problem: 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 on Thursday. "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."
She's right. It's time for sports to show the rest of society how to bridge the gap between legitimate concerns and religious tolerance.
"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."
Abdullah got a bit of good news on Thursday when USA Weightlifting agreed to take her case to the IWF this month.
But it's an ongoing struggle in sports — with some compromise, but not nearly enough.
Muslim women have competed in athletics wearing neck-to-ankle bodysuits and the traditional headscarf known as a hijab, most notably Roqaya Al-Gassra of Bahrain, who made it to the semifinals of the 200 meters at the Beijing Olympics.
Then again, the Iran women's football team recently had to forfeit an Olympic qualifier in Jordan because the players wanted to wear hijabs. FIFA, which hasn't exactly come across as the most upstanding institution in recent weeks, defended its decision by saying the scarves are banned for safety reasons.
As if to show it wasn't singling out any particular religion, FIFA also has prohibited neck warmers used during chilly winter matches in the English Premier League. FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the so-called "snoods" could be used to "hang somebody."
Hey, if football is worried about someone trying to strangle a player by grabbing a hijab or a neck warmer, there are bigger issues to address. And Iran's youth team already had been allowed to take the field last year at a major Olympic-style event wearing specially designed caps that protected their modesty.
Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weighed in on the latest row, describing FIFA as "dictators and colonialists who want to impose their lifestyle on others." As tough as this is to say, the open-collared despot is right about this one.
Every religion has its own peculiarities, which might seem odd to those on the outside but are perfectly reasonable to the faithful. Stifling religious traditions and practices is a very slippery slope indeed, one that sport should make every effort to avoid.
Of course, there are rules that might run afoul of a particular religion but legitimately prevent someone from gaining an unfair advantage. For instance, swimming has banned high-tech bodysuits that led to a rash of world records, ruling they compromised the integrity of the sport. These days, women can wear only shoulder-to-knee suits that leave their arms and lower legs exposed.
If a Muslim women wanted to wear a full-coverage swim suit on religious grounds, she would clearly have an advantage in the pool.
Abdullah isn't trying to gain any sort of competitive edge, however.
She merely wants to abide by her beliefs when she's snatching a bar full of weights above her head. When first starting out, she was allowed to enter local meets wearing garb that made her comfortable on the inside and out: Loose-fitting exercise pants, a tight-fitting long-sleeve shirt with a T-shirt over it, and the head scarf.
As she attempted to move up to higher-level competitions, she ran up against International Weightlifting Federation 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.
OK, that's understandable. But Abdullah said a tight-fitting shirt allows judges to get a good look at her elbows. And, if it meant ensuring a level playing field, she'd certainly be willing to wear a leg covering that conforms to her religion but allows the judges to determine whether she's completed a lift. Considering all the advances in athletic apparel, that shouldn't be a major issue.
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 U.S. chanps. While she's not yet lifting at an Olympic level, she hasn't 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."
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