June 14, 2011 — -- Weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah was on the brink of qualifying for the American Open tournament last year when she was eliminated. It was not her training regimen, muscle strength or weight that kept her from competing. It was her clothes.
After qualifying for a national tournament, the computer engineer with a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech was told she could not compete because the modest athletic attire she wears to comply with her Muslim faith might be dangerous or give her an unfair advantage because the long sleeve garment would prevent judges from seeing if her elbows were locked.
Abdullah's disqualification was one in a growing number of disputes over what female Muslim athletes can wear. Those disputes have risen in soccer, swimming, boxing and gymnastics, putting the athletes in the difficult situation of having to choose between their religion and their sport.
A few weeks ago, the Iranian women's soccer team was disqualified from a match against Jordan for next year's Olympics due to the headscarves they were wearing. A FIFA official said that the headscarves violated their rules for dress and that women's necks cannot be covered for safety reasons.
The Iranian football organization plans to protest the decision, but it will likely be too late for a chance to participate in London's 2012 Summer Olympics.
These conflicts are also producing innovative outfits designed to accommodate Islamic strictures as well as the need for speed, or strength.
Hijabs for Female Muslim Athletes
Best known among them is the burkini, a swimsuit that covers the swimmer from top to bottom, except for their faces, hands and feet. They are two pieces, a pair of loose-fitting pants and a top that includes the head covering and falls mid-thigh. They come in many different colors and designs.
Montreal-based designer Elham Seyed Javad came up with an athletic suit after hearing about a taekwondo team from Montreal that that was expelled from a tournament in 2007 because of the clothing of the Muslim participants.
Seyed Javad said she understood both the need for safety and the women's dedication to their beliefs. As an athletic Muslim who chooses not to wear a hijab in her daily life, she began working to find a compromise.
"We're combining sports and culture, so why not find solutions so that we can all cohabit together?" Seyed Javad asked.
Muslim beliefs require that the women be completely covered, excluding their face and hands.
Seyed Javad came up with the ResportOn athletic hijab. It is a tight sleeveless piece that is worn underneath a regular uniform. It covers the head and torso and has an opening in the back of the neck that can be used to fix hair without taking the entire piece off. The extremely light material allows ventilation and dries 14 times faster than cotton.
Since outfitting the taekwondo team, demand has poured in from all over the world, from both Muslim and non-Muslim women. She has also received offers from potential distributors all over the world.
"I want the athlete to be judged by her talent and capacity to play, not by her religious beliefs," Seyed Javad said.
As Seyed Javad's product and burkines makes their way onto the international market, several other options have been around for Muslim women.
A company called Capsters sells just the head and neck covering piece. They have different styles for aerobics, running and surfing, among others.
In the past, athletes have been able to work with sporting organizers to accommodate their restrictions. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, women were permitted to compete in running events with headscarves, long sleeves and pants.
At the 2012 London Olympics, Muslim women boxers will be allowed to wear hijab in competition.
Athletic Hijabs for Muslim Female Athletes
Weightlifter Abdullah, 35, decided to speak out after she was disqualified. "If there are other women who dress like this, whether it's weightlifting or another sport, they should be able to participate without being deterred by what they're wearing."
"There is nothing preventing women boxers from wearing full Islamic dress. Obviously, religious requirements should be taken into account and we want to be as inclusive as we can," said an International Boxing Association representative in 2009 when the decision was made.
Even though Abdullah is not weightlifting at an Olympic level, she still has her hope for her hobby. She found an ally in the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Washington-based CAIR asked both USA Weightlifting and the United States Olympic Committee to advocate for Abdullah on behalf of all women who wish to compete.
Each sport has a governing body and for weightlifting, the final decision comes from the International Weightlifting Federation.
"We hear calls for the empowerment of Muslim women around the world from people in the West," said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. "If they are serious about this inclusion, what better way to empower Muslim women than literally through weightlifting?"
"It is an issue around the world. As women participate more, accommodations need to be made," Hooper said.
The United States Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act requires that people be allowed to participate "without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin, and with fair notice and opportunity for a hearing to any amateur athlete, coach, trainer, manager, administrator, or official before declaring the individual ineligible to participate."
After being contacted by the Olympic Committee and USA Weightlifting, the International Weightlifting Federation announced that it would put the issue on its agenda for its next meeting on June 26 in Malaysia.
"For women in general, no matter what their beliefs are, sports have been male dominated and it's starting to cross over," Abudllah said, "It would be great to keep the momentum."