Atlanta weightlifter's plight over Islamic attire gets international attention *| ajc.com



5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Atlanta athlete may have single-handedly set in motion a change in international rules governing how Muslim women may dress in at least one popular sport -- weightlifting.

The case of Kulsoom Abdullah, a Georgia Tech graduate who wears a hijab and trains as a weightlifter, has attracted the attention of not only a Washington-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, but also the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The USOC has asked the International Weightlifting Federation to review its rules on athletes' dress after Abdullah was declared ineligible to compete in national competitions because of her attire. The IWF's technical committee has set the review for June 26 in Penang, Malaysia, and it's executive board is expected to consider the matter the next day.

USOC spokesman Mark Jones said the review is not just on behalf of Abdullah but athletes in general. "The key from our perspective is that we want to include every athlete we can [in competitions]," Jones said.

Abdullah, who competes in the 48kg and 53kg weight class in women's senior division weightlifting, claims USA Weightlifting, one of the many sporting associations under the USOC umbrella, prevented her from participating in a December national competition in Ohio and will not allow her to compete in another competition in July in Iowa because she wanted to wear a hijab, which can cover a woman's hair and body but leave her her face, hands and feet exposed. The 35-year-old woman, who holds a doctorate in electrical computer engineering from Tech, competes in the women's senior division.

Abdullah began weightlifting as an exercise routine a few years ago. "It was just something for fun," she said. "It gave me something to achieve as a goal." She teamed up with a trainer and set her sights on competing, training five to six days a week. "I just kept working out," said Abdullah, who moved to Atlanta from Florida in 1999. "I have the endurance and the strength to compete." She entered competitions last year in Flowery Branch, Newnan, Gainesville, Savannah and South Carolina.

Abdullah said she covered her body during those local competitions and met no resistance from weightlifting officials. But USA Weightlifting follows rules set by the International Weightlifting Federation, which says athlete's outfits must be close-fitting, have no collar and must not cover the elbows and knees.

Abdullah's plight has gained the attention of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"No athlete should be forced to choose between faith and sport," CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote in a letter to USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun. "Muslim women seek to participate in all aspects of American society, including sporting activities, and should not face artificial and arbitrary barriers to that participation."

CAIR cites the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which it says requires that USA Weightlifting not discriminate based on "‘race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin." The group says Abdullah must be given ‘fair notice and opportunity for a hearing" before declaring her ineligible to compete based on her dress.

This isn't the first time Islamic women athletes have been declared ineligible to compete because of their dress. Just last week, Iran's women's soccer team was disqualified during an Olympic qualifying competition against Jordan after athletes wore a full-body outfit with a head scarf. As a result, the soccer team will not be allowed to compete in London.

Gadeir Abbas, an attorney for the Islamic council, said U.S. Olympic officials could be an advocate for more tolerance when it comes to attire for Islamic women athletes.

"The idea of the Olympics is that competitors from all across the world can get together and compete," Abbas said. "Instituting regulations that exclude women of the Islamic world seems to be the antithesis of what the Olympics is all about."

Abdullah, who welcomed the IWF's decision to review is rules on weightlifting dress, said she'll continue her intensive training whatever the outcome.

"I've just been taking it one step at a time," said Abdullah. "It'll [change in rules] definitely help others if there are other women of faith who want to get in the sport."