Heavy lifting doesn’t unnerve Kulsoom Abdullah, who has helped to throw open the doors for Muslim women in the international weightlifting arena. By Lina Lewis.
It started less than 10 years ago. All Kulsoom Abdullah wanted then was to build on her physical strength.
So she took up taekwondo while pursuing a PhD in computer networking at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Using a website as a guide, Kulsoom trained hard at the campus gymnasium. She worked her way up to a black belt in the Korean martial art.
Just before she graduated, the Pakistani-American discovered weightlifting. Little did Kulsoom know that the sport, which has now become her passion, would lead her to achieve a milestone in the global sporting world.
Kulsoom decided to embark on a personal mission to convince the IWF that modest clothing wouldn’t impair judges’ calls
Her journey began at CrossFit Atlanta, where she learnt the Olympic Lifts and Crossfit workouts from professional weightlifters. “It was addictive, both physically and psychologically,” says the 36-year-old in an interview with Aquila Style.
So in love was she with weightlifting that she attended additional sessions on top of the Crossfit programme she’d signed up for. Her coach soon convinced her to enter a local weightlifting competition. She competed for the first time in March 2010.
Kulsoom became hooked on competing. By October that year, she had lifted enough to qualify for a competitive spot at the national level. But the American Open Weightlifting Championships, which would take place in December, followed international rules that did not allow competitors to have their limbs covered. For judges to declare a lift successful, they must confirm that a weightlifter’s elbows and knees are “locked”.
This marked the first time that Kulsoom had been sidelined in a competition because of her obligations as a Muslimah. She’d been wearing the hijab since the age of 14.
The conventional attire for weightlifters is a form-fitting bodysuit that exposes the arms, knees and shins. In keeping with the teachings of Islam, Kulsoom usually trained in loose-fitting workout attire that covered her arms and legs. When she applied for a spot in the US National Weightlifting Tournament, set to take place in July 2011, she met with the same obstacle.
That’s when Kulsoom decided to embark on a personal mission to convince the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) that there were clothing options that would meet the modesty requirements as stipulated by Islam without impairing judges’ calls. The 43-page presentation she created argued that the modest attire, which included a full-body unitard, would not give the wearer any competitive edge. (The hijab had always been permitted.)
In June 2011 the IWF Congress held a meeting in Penang, Malaysia. On its agenda was the issue of approved weightlifting attire. In the end, Kulsoom’s report proved convincing. The sport’s governing body agreed to revise its rules – she had won her case.
In a statement, the IWF announced:
The modified rule changes [permit] athletes to wear a one piece full body tight fitted “unitard” under the compulsory weightlifting costume. The “unitard” will enable technical officials to effectively adjudicate areas of the body which are essential to the correct execution of the lift.
Her victory meant that she would now be able to compete in the US National Weightlifting Tournament in Iowa, scheduled for only two weeks later. On her blog she recounts rushing to complete a slew of tasks, such as scheduling training time, arranging her competition clothing, making travel arrangements, planning her diet and talking to journalists keen to interview her in the wake of the IWF rule changes.
Under difficult circumstances in her first-ever national competition, she placed fifth out of six in her weight category, while making history by competing in her newly approved weightlifting costume and paving the way for other Muslim women in sport.
Less than two months later, Kulsoom found herself in Washington, DC for an entirely different sort of event. She’d been invited by the US State Department to speak at a reception to commemorate Eid ul-Fitr. The evening was hosted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to honour the contributions of American Muslims to athletic competition.
In her speech, Kulsoom spoke about her achievements in education and sport as being “challenging journeys not stereotypically expected of me.” She shared words of advice that had helped her through her own struggles:
I want you to understand the power of people to bring about change. Believe in yourself – the power of the individual. Any goal takes hard work, but regardless of the result, you always learn from the journey.
On top of boosting her physical and mental strength, Kulsoom also appreciates the benefits that the sport brings to everyday tasks in her life. She can easily lift and carry all her groceries to her car, skipping the hassle of pushing a cart and returning it after use. And when she’s late for a flight, running with her luggage in tow is a breeze.
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Hunger and thirst during Ramadan do not stop her from training six days a week, even in the scorching summer heat in Atlanta. In fact, she was training extra hard this year, with the hope of representing Pakistan at the London Olympics. Heartbreakingly, Pakistan did not receive an IWF wildcard for female competitors.
But Kulsoom does not let this setback break her fighting spirit. These days, she’s relishing the final few days of the holy month of Ramadan, gathering with members of the Muslim community in Atlanta for worship, iftar and other activities.
“The community here is pretty diverse, so it’s very interesting,” she says. “I get to meet Muslims from other countries and ethnic groups.” Kulsoom will be celebrating Eid with her family at home. Most of her extended family are in Pakistan.
As she has shown the world, Muslim women are not second-class citizens. Nor are they weak.
And with the issue of attire now resolved, there’s nothing to stop any Muslimah from getting involved in the male-dominated sport at a competitive level.
“Don’t let what other people say stop you, be it weightlifting or anything else in life,” urges Kulsoom. “You’ll never feel happy if you constantly limit yourself to what other people think is right for you. Chase your dreams.”
Learn more about Kulsoom and her journey at her website, Lifting Covered. Until September 8th, you can donate to her fundraising drive to provide education to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault at LaunchGood.
This article originally appeared under the headline “Lifting from under the veil” in the August 2012 Eid issue of Aquila Style magazine. You can read the entire issue free of charge on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet at Google Play