Jul 24, 2015

Weights of a Pioneer

Source: Chime Original

BY Kulsoom Abdullah


Olympic Weightlifting


I grew up in the small town of Okeechobee Florida, the kind of small town where schools are closed when the local Super Walmart opens so everyone can attend. Our family moved to the US when the medical field was hiring foreign professionals from Pakistan. My mother didn’t speak English and had never traveled outside of her village before. But she and my father supported my education, and allowed me to choose my own major. I received scholarships to attend the University of Central Florida where I received my Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering with a minor in Math. I have chosen my own studies, but I do feel like a South Asian parent’s dream (for their son). I next attended the Georgia Institute of Technology where I received my Masters and PhD in Electrical/Computer Engineering.

When I was young, I liked sports, but had no motivation and no role model. It was not until I was in graduate school that I became proactive and took up Taekwondo. My friend’s roommate was on the German national Jujitsu team and encouraged me to sign up. The instructor was accommodating in my choice of clothing (head scarf and covered arms and legs).

atheltic 2

Kulsoom Abdullah as a child enjoys playground equipment with family in Florida.

Weightlifting became my physical routine and hobby. But no gender barriers for me as I refused to use “pink” dumbbells (aka female weight restricted dumbbells). With my bony wrists, I wanted to pick up the real stuff, the steel barbell, and make the most of it. I refused to wear gloves; instead I would apply chalk to my hands as I gripped the barbell with no barrier, got into my starting position, breathed in as much oxygen as I could, tightened my muscles and used my legs to drive and propel the bar up to my shoulders and over my head.

It took almost a year for coaches to convince me to compete locally in 2010. I was then able to lift enough weight to qualify for the 48 kg weight class at the USA Weightlifting National competitions. I was told I would have to compete in a customary singlet where my legs, arms and head would be uncovered, so I chose not to take part. It was very demoralizing; it affected my training and well being. I was used to dealing with prejudice and exclusion, but I had been having fun at open competitions when I could dress as I saw fit. To be suddenly told that you can’t participate because of your clothes was heartbreaking .

weight of a pioneer

Kulsoom representing Pakistan.

My story with sports was far from over though. I was encouraged by civil rights organizations and lawyers to contest the clothing ruling. I reached out to CAIR (council on American-Islamic relations) who asked the United States Olympic Committee and the International Weightlifting Federation to change their policies and allow athletes who so wish to compete while covering their hair, arms and legs.
The International Weightlifting Federation heard my case, agreed to change the clothing ruling, and I was able to compete in my first U.S. national competition in Iowa in July 2011. This athletic feat of determination culminated in an invitation to deliver remarks at the 2011 U.S. State Department’s “Eid ul Fitr” (end of Ramadan) reception in presence of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Later in 2011, I had the opportunity to represent Pakistan as their first female weightlifter in the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships in Paris, France. This was the first time in history that a weightlifter competed internationally while wearing hijab. In 2012, I went on to represent Pakistan once more time at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea.

I still have not been able to fathom the support I received. Most recently, I was one of the recipients of the Georgia Influential Muslim Award (2014) and was featured in “The Pakistan Four”, a documentary about redefining what it means to be a Muslim woman in the U.S. I was also presented in a 2015 calendar of female South Asian American role models, “Saris to Suits Empowered”, and spoke on a panel at the Religion Newswriters Association.

Kulsoom Abdullah CHIME 2

Kulsoom Abdullah, weightlifter, hoists her bicycle overhead after completing a training ride in Atlanta.

I have come a long way gladly bearing the weight of being a pioneer and opening the way for the next generation of women athletes.

Kulsoom Abdullah CHIME 1

Kulsoom Abdullah gets measured at a bicycle store in preparation for the #RideForRights.