Kulsoom Abdullah is a Pakistani-American weightlifter who became the first female weightlifter representing Pakistan when she competed at the 2011 World Championships. The same year she made history when, in keeping with her religious views, she became the first woman to compete completely covered after the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) modified its rules to accommodate her request to do so.
Kulsoom Abdullah was born in Kansas City, Missouri and grew up in Okeechobee, Florida. She frequently visited Pakistan while growing up and speaks Pashto. She has a Master’s degree and PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
She began weightlifting while she was a graduate student as a training method for taekwondo. After being denied the right to compete in an IWF competition in modest clothing, USA Weightlifting CEO, John Duff, helped to persuade the IWF to allow Abdullah to participate by modifying their regulations to allow her to compete with her head, arms, and legs covered.
In a 2011 article, Abdullah stated, “In a contemplative world, we would think about how to come up with attire that would bring out the best in all competitors, regardless what their religious or personal level of modesty is. This is not a beauty contest, not a religious litmus test.”
International rules originally required the arms and legs of competitors to be bare so that judges could determine when a lift was successful. Abdullah was featured in the documentary The Pakistan Four: Four strangers in America redefining the narrative of being a Pakistani Muslim woman, released in 2014. The film also features Hareem Ahmad, saber fencer, Nadia Manzoor, stand-up comic, and Chef Fatima Ali.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field is no easy feat, particularly where physical capabilities are concerned. And Kulsoom Abdullah is bossing one of the biggest male-dominated industries, weightlifting. The Pakistani-American is one of the very few Muslim women in the profession and is the first to represent Pakistan at the World Championship. She is also the only Muslim woman to compete in an international weightlifting event while wearing a Hijab.
Kulsoom has been competing in Olympic weightlifting competitions since 2010, after taking an interest in taekwondo. Just in case that wasn’t enough, Kulsoom also has a PhD in engineering (putting us all to shame).
The journey to the World Championship, which takes place in Thailand this September, has been a long one for Kulsoom. She was denied entry into the national weightlifting championship in 2010 because she wore a headscarf. But she wasn’t willing to lie down and take this, so challenged the rules and was able to enter the following year.
‘It was very disappointing and affected my training even though I was used to some discrimination,’ she explains to Metro.co.uk. ‘I had already been training and competing at the local level, so this was a jarring feeling. ‘In retrospect, it was all a life-changing experience. Being told no, then getting support and media attention was very surprising and sudden. I did my best to take advantage of being given this voice and platform.’
The lack of representation of Muslim women in sports also hindered the idea that she could enter such spaces. ‘I did not know what weightlifting was when I was a child. Not having any role models or thinking that I could be athletic, I never pursued a sport. ‘I got interested in weightlifting later in life when I was in graduate school. ‘I started taking taekwondo and worked up to the black belt. To supplement it, I started to build up my endurance and strength. ‘At the time, it was difficult to find resources on women and strength training so a lot I did on my own. I enjoyed being active and wanted to keep working on my strength even after finishing my PhD. This ultimately led me to weightlifting.’
While engineering might be considered a lucrative career, weightlifting was somewhat an unorthodox choice for Kulsoom’s community. But her family is supportive, she adds:
“I was encouraged to compete. ‘[At the gym] I’m usually asked if I am hot due to being covered up. The answer is yes, I usually am when it is summer, and there is no air conditioning but in the winter I am just fine. ‘I think because I tried my best to find positive environments to learn and train, and was focused on it, I did not pay attention or find out what people thought about me doing this.”
Of course, all of that requires a lot of discipline and a serious amount of hard work. But Kulsoom always manages to lift her spirits (see what we did there?). While getting her PhD in Electrical/Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Kulsoom began balancing the sport with her studies. ‘It was a challenge. When I was in graduate school, and taking taekwando, I was basically sleeping, eating, studying, working, training, and then sleeping again.
“Later on, with weightlifting, I enjoyed the sport and wanted to keep doing it at least for my own mental and physical health. I tried to make sure I took care of myself, and take breaks during the holidays so I could re-energies. ‘Today, working in the industry is more flexible than at university, so I just find weightlifting a part of my routine to take care of myself.”
Kulsoom adds that, “Seeing the positive reaction from people and showing young Muslim girls that it’s possible for them to do the unthinkable too has been one of the biggest highlights.”
Today the society in which we lives, is very narrow minded. Neither the men did any work nor did they let their women to go outside. This is not Islam. Although it is against the teaching of Islam. Unfortunately, today men and women did not get equal rights. If a women is earning livelihood then people start taunting her, telling her to stay home.
This is very awkward and it really discomfort a woman. We need to be broad-minded with women within limits of Islam. Please give some space to women so that they can breathe for a while. From the beginning they were kept under pressure for marriage and after that many of the men put a lot of burden upon their heads. They spent whole of their life by sacrificing for their men and children. Islam teaches us to be kind and generous with the women.