Lifting a Heaven Burden
The inspiring story of a Muslim weightlifter who never gave up on her dream
The committee had determined that Kulsoom would not be allowed to alter the traditional weightlifting singlet - and they were staunchly opposed. Kulsoom recalls making several suggestions to them: “I thought maybe they would just let me go and lift, but not have my scores count. They said no to that too.” They would not even allow her to walk out onto the platform in her modified uniform “I was disappointed when I found out I couldn’t compete,” says Kulsoom, “I thought, why am I doing this in the first place?”
For her, a naturally quiet person with many friends who didn’t even know she lifted weights, it was hard to imagine fighting the decision further. It was those same friends though, Muslims and others alike, who encouraged her to explore her rights as a competitor. At that point she wrote a letter to the USA Weightlifting Committee, providing her record and many examples of sports that are willing to accommodate for different dress at the international level.
Despite her plea, the answer was a firm no, but with a glimmer of hope. The USA Weightlifting Committee didn't have the power to grant her request, but communicated that the International Weightlifting Federation could.
After this response the situation began to impact her lifting; “Sometimes it was hard because a lot of the lifts are mental,” she said, “you have to really be focused.” It was in those down days that her story became known to CAIR, the Council on American-Islaimic Relations, an advocacy group that seeks to take on Muslim stereotyping and pursue equality.
Until this point, Kulsoom had been taking most of the rejection inward. However, the research she had done about women who faced similar challenges combined with the interest of an organization like CAIR, made her realize that this cause was much bigger than her individual situation: “Part of that was my faith, and part of it was thinking about other people, “ she says, “not necessarily just Muslim women, but women of other faiths that dress conservatively and maybe had never thought about being in a sport.”
Despite her resistance to being in the public eye, Kulsoom agreed to have a press release issued in expectation of the International Weightlifting Federation meeting that took place in June. The IWF is the body that determines the rules that the national competitions follow, and Kulsoom hoped they would hear her request. The press release was intended to bring awareness, and it did. There was a huge influx of support and media interested in her story. She even got coverage in her families’ native country of Pakistan.