Kulsoom Abdullah is a woman of many talents. In addition to having a PhD in computer engineering, she is also a professional weightlifter and crossfire and has competed all over the world. In 2011, she was invited to the U.S. State Department Eid Al Fitr dinner and got the opportunity to deliver remarks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was the first female and covered woman to represent Pakistan in the World Weightlifting Champians two years in a row. In addition to her current sports career, Kulsoon is also conducting research in computer engineering at Georgia Tech University.
|1. When did you begin weightlifting professionally and what lead you to it?
I started Taekwondo in graduate school. I generally wanted to be stronger so I did what I could in the gym on my campus. Close to graduation and after, I stopped Taekwondo. I found out about Olympic Lifts (snatch and clean and jerk) and I thought that those lifts would be great skills to learn, while also getting strong, because they incorporate strength plus power, speed, timing and skill. I could not find a place to learn how to do them, but found out about Crossfit, and that their programming incorporates Olympic Lifts. At the time there was one gym near me where I ended up training for both Crossfit workouts and learned to OL (Olympic lift), as they had coaches who were also competitive weightlifters. I started end of 2007. I loved to lift, and I would attend separate class sessions on weightlifting in addition to doing Crossfit workouts. I also liked the Crossfit programming, because you learn a lot of different skills and train in different time domains for general physical preparedness. Finally, at the beginning of 2010, my coach convinced me to go to an open local weightlifting competition (March 2010). I liked it, and the community of athletes and coaches I interacted with. So I continued to go to competitions, and ultimately (October 2010) lifted enough to qualify for the American Open 2010 in December and nationals.
|2. How do you balance the time between working on your post-doctoral research and training?
I graduated in 2006 with my PhD. It took time for me to find a job, then I was laid off the middle of 2009. It has been difficult to find a permanent job, because of the economy and because of having a PhD (seen as over qualified). I went back to my colleague and former advisor at Georgia Tech, and am working on research and ultimately finding a paid position. I am also working with a professor at Georgia State (she is in Criminal Justice) in a multi-discipline project on child trafficking and the use of the Internet.
For the past year, when the press release went out, and clothing modification made, things became even busier. It was difficult to balance and a lot of the time, there was not a balance between work and then the weightlifting, press, writing and competition logistics. But during this time and outside of it, it is challenging because the time you need to sleep, maintain a good diet and recover. It is doable, but you have to be really efficient with time, not have much of a life. Then that makes it important to give yourself breaks so you can rejuvenate. It also helps to have family support.
Now that things are not as busy for me, I am putting more time into research and inshAllah, finding a full time job.
|3. What type of adversity have you faced, if any, being a covered weightlifter?
There was some hate mail when my story first appeared in the press. Then after some time, it started to trickle and then I received none. Fortunately, most of the emails have and continue to be supportive. I think most people who are supportive take the time to write. Any athletes or coaches who were not happy about it (I believe not that many) did not say anything to me. I would say generally many were neutral and good number were supportive and happy about the rule change, so that it would allow more participation in the sport. There was one man who questioned my presence at the Worlds in France and wondered how I was representing Pakistan (he was from the USA and did not know I had Pakistani citizenship as well) but he was the only one.
|4. How do you explain your hijab to non Muslims?
Generally that it is something I chose to do. It is not just a head covering, but how you dress, and also behavior, manners, and speech.
I am Muslim and believe in Islam. We believe that we are to worship one God. The Quran is the word of God, and the last Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) life and teachings as guidance for the Quran. There is also guidance and instructions on life in addition to worship, and one of those is dress for both men and women, and one of those aspects is hijab.
|5. Have you met any other Muslim women who are also in the same sport?
There are weightlifting teams from Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, UAE, Malaysia, Indonesia and others I might not be aware of, that have women on them (some Muslim, some not) and they wear the traditional singlet attire when they compete (though I heard one wore the unitard and headcover at the Olympics). They were pointed out to me by the few who did not want the rule change to happen, basically saying, look, they are complying, why don’t you take your hijab off too. Of course, this is not logical. I am my own person, I don’t know those ladies, and this is not a judgment contest about how ladies dress.
My friend, Amna Al Haddad, started going public with crossfit and she wants to compete Olympic weightlifting one day. She told me that my story helped her get started while wearing hijab. We talk regularly, share stories and try to motivate each other and the different challenges we face.
|6. What advice do you have for other Muslim women who are interested in going into this field or any other sports field in which they will be a minority?
Generally, if she is interested, she should do it and not worry what others think. This attitude wont let you be happy in life, whether it is weightlifting or something else. If I did that, I would have never picked up a barbell. Fortunately, I was able to find a supportive environment, even with the way I dress.
The challenges one faces will vary depending on where you live, and what your family is like. I would say try to find a supportive environment if you can. Family at first might not like it, but if they really love you, they will come to understand this is good for you and it makes you happy, in spite of whatever stereotypes and misunderstands there are about females and sports. Some might say you will not find a husband.. but do you really want a husband that is not supportive of you? He would not be the kind of man you want to marry anyway and hopefully these attitudes are going to continue to change.
If you cannot find support, there are things you can do at home with little or no equipment. This will help those who want to be active. For competitions, you can try to be proactive, recruit other females for a sport, and try to convince local government or schools to support some type of intramural or traveling competitions, even if its to a nearby city. It will help get things started.
|7. There are now more and more Muslim designers who are making sports clothing to accommodate Muslim women. Are there any special designs that you have liked or felt accommodated you?
I have been active for a long time, almost 10 years, starting with the TKD seriously. So I have been used to doing my own thing or finding buying larger sizes from what I find in stores. I continued this through out the crossfit and weightlifting. I had started to hear about the sports hijabs coming up in those years, but I never purchased them because of either the initial higher cost, or I was not sure that it would be something I could wear, because I have been used to wearing it a certain way, not the cap or amira style. I have either done the regular triangle hijab with a pin, tying the straps back, or using a rectangle one that I tie at the back of my neck, wrap around and pin.
When the weightlifting press release came out and my story known, I was offered a sports hijab once, but it was too close to competition, and I did not want to start wearing something new that I was not used to. Friniggi (http://www.friniggi.com/) tried to make me a singlet, but they are in Botswana, and doing that remotely was too difficult. The singlet was challenging, making it in a way that was one piece, that you could move around in and was still lose. All of my hijabs have been made by a friend getting her PhD at Georgia Tech who knew how to sew (for USA nationals) and afterwards a lady who specializes in costume design. It took a few attempts to get the best one I have now, which is what I wore to the Asian weightlifting championships.
|8. We are seeing more and more covered women competing professionally in sports. In your opinion, what is the number one factor that is helping these women succeed?
I believe they had an inner drive to be athletic, and that drive was enough to overcome the obstacles or challenges they could have had to face (which will vary from country, to region, to community to family). Support for Muslim females in sport is growing within communities, countries, and sporting bodies, so I think the challenges women have to face is going down and it will not always have to be pioneers to make things go forward and grow.
|9. What/ Who has been your greatest motivation/inspiration?
There is not one person or thing that I can name. I would say there are many who have faced similar types of struggles, many more than I have (not just in sports), so I think of that. Also reminding myself that I should do my best in any opportunity I get, and make dua that Allah guides me.
|10. What is the greatest thing you want people to remember about you?
To believe in yourself and the difference one person can make. You might not always reach your goals, but you might reach part of them and learn from the process of getting to them. That will always help you when you try for something else. Most goals are not easy, so you will at least learn patience and perseverance.
(This is a positive environment. Comments will be regulated and negative or inappropriate comments will be deleted)