Muslim woman wants to lift sport's dress code
Globetrotting Philip Hersh
Wednesday, I received a press releasefrom the Council on American-Islamic Relations about its efforts to get a dispensation from international weightlifting costume rules so a female Muslim athlete can take part in some of her sport's major events.
The press release noted CAIR had sent a letter to U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun asking the USOC to intercede on behalf of Kulsoom Abdullah, a 35-year-old computer engineer from Atlanta who wants to balance her desire to compete with her desire to follow dress code dictates of Islam.
Thursday, the USOC told me it has succeeded in bringing the issue before the International Weightlifting Federation's technical committee at its June 26 meeting in Malaysia -- which is nothing short of miraculous, given the pace at which most international sports federations work.
This story still may not have a happy ending for Adbullah because the clothes she has worn in minor competitions do not fit IWF rules. Those rules require the knees and elbows to be uncovered and require a tight, collarless, one- or two-piece garment covering the torso of the athlete.
But the subtext here also is significant, because it speaks to the importance of the USOC's ongoing efforts to get U.S. representation in the highest councils of international sport.
The reason the IWF agreed so quickly to discuss the matter is simple: Dragomir Cioroslan, the USOC's international relations director, also is a vice-president of the Budapest, Hungary-based International Weightlifting Federation. Not only that, Cioroslan, a native of Romania, has close ties with sports officials from the Eastern European countries that long have dominated the sport.
Cioroslan is among a mere handful of U.S. officials to hold high positions in the international federations on the Olympic program. There are, for instance, none in the upper echelon of the International Olympic Committee.
Since international relations in the Olympic world is more person-to-person than nation-to-nation, it is critical for the United States to have more people in such positions to deal with matters like the Abdullah case.
At 35, with a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech, Abdullah is a relative newcomer to weightlifting, and the amount of weight she is lifting reflects that.
"I started just as a way to exercise and then I learned about competitions,'' she said.
Abdullah began competing in the 105- and 16-pound classes at local Olympic-style competitions in early 2010, wearing loose, long pants; a long-sleeved, close-fitting under shirt topped by a short-sleeved, loose t-shirt; and a head scarf.
At at least one such competition, as photos show, there was a USA Weightlifting poster in the background. She said the competitions at which she lifted were sanctioned by the U.S. federation.
But when Abdullah qualified for last December's American Open, a major USA Weightlifting event, she was told she could not compete unless she wore the standard costume because of IWF rules.
Abdullah, born in Kansas to Pakistani parents, turned to the Council of American-Islamic Relations and created a web site explaining her situation after discussions with USA Weightlifting had proved fruitless.
"I felt like I was going in circles the past six months of so,'' she wrote in an email. "I grew disheartened but I never gave up my dream of competing because all things are possible."
Abdullah's immediate goal is to compete at July's U.S. Championships. Her argument is based on provisions of the Olympic Charter and Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, age, sex or national origin.
While there remains considerable debate among scholars -- and politicians -- over whether the Islamic dress idea of hejab, which means ``cover,'' is a religious or cultural mandate, the issue of fair treatment of Muslim women athletes has made a lot of news lately.
The International Badminton Federation recently backed off a decision to require all women competitors to wear skirts so they would look more attractive and feminine.
But the international soccer federation would not allow the Iran women's team to wear head scarves for an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan, having banned head scarves in 2007 on the grounds they could cause choking injuries. The Iranis chose to forfeit the match.
In weightlifting, the issue about keeping elbows and knees uncovered relates to rules about not bending those joints. According to John Duff, the CEO of USA Weightlifting, officials must be able to see that the lifter has locked out his or her elbows and knees for the lift to be ruled completed.
Abdullah contends the jersey she would wear is tight enough to reveal whether she is complying with that rule as it applies to the elbows. She also is willing to wear a loose-fitting singlet rather than a t-shirt and to have a female official verify that she has nothing on her elbows under the shirt.
As for the uncovered knees and legs, she feels the intent is to show the athlete is getting no help in locking the knee from compression undergarments. Abdullah said all she wears over her legs is loose pants.
There should be no issue about a head scarf choking a weightlifter.
"Trust me, I do not get a competitive advantage (from her choice of costume),'' Abdullah said on her web site.
The advantage she has - and any U.S. weightlifer would have -- is the presence of Dragomir Cioroslan at the highest level of the sport's officialdom. Her case now will get a hearing. Without him, it almost certainly would have been a tree falling in a forest of deaf ears.