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Sports shouldn’t exclude Muslim women athletes who choose to compete covered

By Kulsoom Abdullah on August 14, 2016

At the Rio Olympics, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad emerged as a poised, powerful, and positive voice for Muslim women. As a fellow Muslim athlete, I am proud and grateful that she reinforces a counter-narrative to misperceptions fueled by Islamophobia.

The recognition for her history-making turn as the first Muslim to compete for America while wearing hijab has dominated media coverage around the Rio Olympics and led me to reflect on my own fight for the right to compete covered in Olympic Weightlifting.

I took up Olympic Weightlifting in 2008 — two years after earning a black belt in Taekwondo while pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. A local gym with a supportive staff provided encouragement and camaraderie that made workouts inspiring and joyful. I enjoyed the results of my training — including the shocked surprise when I hoist water-cooler jugs with one hand or when I assist male passengers to secure luggage in overhead bins.

After one year of training, I qualified for the American Open 2010 (a USA National Weightlifting Competition) only to face an enormous hurdle: The standard competition uniform was a form-fitting singlet with short sleeves and shorts designed to keep arms and legs bare for judges to see when elbows and knees are locked. My coaches approached USA Weightlifting Committee to request modification complying with my religion — to cover my arms, legs and head. But our appeal was rejected on the grounds that it did not match International Weightlifting Federation regulations.

Demoralized, I resigned myself to keep lifting for recreation.

However, as word spread among my gym members and friends, they expressed sympathy and support that bolstered my determination to fight the injustice. The uniform requirement was not explicitly imposed as a restriction to exclude Muslim females and I felt optimistic that any governing board would favor implementation of inclusive measures to broaden the scope of participants.

My fight eventually hit the media. The headline of a Muslim woman wanting to lift weights while covered brought reporters with interview requests. As an introvert, it was overwhelming to speak with so many people and in such a public sphere. But I welcomed the platform to advocate for expanded access to sport for myself and all observant Muslim women.

The media exposure forced the International Weightlifting Federation to address the issue at their annual meeting. I provided a 43-page presentation proving that by “lifting covered” I would not gain a competitive advantage, that the judges could make clear calls and that Muslim modesty and dignity would be met.

In July 2011, I won the modification allowing a unitard to be worn under the singlet. Weeks later, I was the first Muslim to wear a hijab in American weightlifting competition and I was the first female to represent Pakistan in international competition. Like Ibtihaj, my being Muslim was no obstacle to competitive sports.

Muslim girls and women face unique challenges in sports, including religious, cultural and government barriers to participation. Since we already have a range of hurdles, clothing shouldn’t be an additional deterrent. While non-Muslim teammates don shorts and tank tops, we add another layer — usually a base of tights or leggings under the shorts and long-sleeves on top. Ibtihaj took up fencing after she and her mom spotted girls playing while “covered” — and learned it was actually a requirement of the sport. Thankfully, she took to the sport and excelled at the highest level.

Would Ibtihaj have made it to the Olympics in another sport if there were restrictions on her uniform? What if she had taken up basketball, whose international federation has a hijab ban? (Muslim American Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and 14 other Muslim basketball players from around the world are petitioning to overturn it.)

I dream of a day when Muslim girls do not have to choose a sport based upon whether or not they can play and honor their faith. As sports participation and visibility develop, I trust that the media will soon look beyond the “novelty” of the hijab and what we’re wearing to report on what we’re doing and thinking and feeling as athletes and role models, to improve the representation of Muslim female athletes who are forging a new narrative.

Kulsoom Abdullah is a data scientist working in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a Pakistani-American competitive Olympic Weightlifter and an Athlete Ambassador for Shirzanan, a Muslim women and sports advocacy group.