The least I can do is try...

The Right to be Active

In Fitness Bliss on June 13, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Kulsoom Abdullah

When I was about 21, I was at a family picnic running around with my younger cousin. As I hobbled back to the picnic table, having over-zealously stumbled over a rock, an older relative chastised me with a disapproving look. “Stop running around” he said, “you are not a young kid anymore you know!” Apparently, my time was up. I was supposed to be sitting at the picnic table with the older women swapping recipes!

Being of Indian heritage, I get the impression that traditionally, in my culture,  women are expected to stop any type of athletic, fun activity after a certain point in life. I know of a woman who had to quit dance classes upon being engaged. Why? Why should someone give up doing what they love– especially if it is something healthy and active? Apparently, it was because of perception– an engaged woman had no business taking dance classes. While I cannot say I am an expert on Indian culture, or what I have observed applies to everyone (I probably witnessed a more conservative ideal), I can say that I do not agree with all of it!

One of the many things I have always appreciated about American culture is the widely accepted idea that it is  never too late to do what you want to do. People are applauded for going to medical school at the age of 40– not ridiculed! Not being a natural scholar myself, activity has been my medical school. I was a natural couch potato when I was a kid, but somewhere in adulthood, I found that I was happier when activity was a regular part of my life. Don’t get me wrong– I still love my couch time dearly, but it is much more satisfying after a run.

Along this vein, I immediately took interest in the story of Kulsoom Abdullah.

Kulsoom Abdullah is a woman who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an American of Pakistani descent and a practicing Muslim. At 35, Abdullah is able to deadlift 245 lbs and hoist up 105. If I met the sub-120 lb Abdullah on the street, I would have never guessed this! She also happens to be a brainiac, possessing a Ph.D. in computer and electrical engineering.

Despite her desire to do so, Abdullah cannot compete in national weight-lifting competitions because of the dress required by her faith. She typically wears loose-fitting pants, and shirts that cover her arms for modesty when she trains. This outfit does not comply with the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) regulation that a competitor’s elbows and knees must be uncovered– this is so judges can see that they are locked during a lift. The IWF is bringing Abdullah’s case under consideration and it remains to be determined if she will be able to compete.

I sincerely hope the IWF is able to find a compromise that allows Abdullah to compete. As a woman of South Asian descent, I am always excited to hear about serious competitors who share my heritage– particularly because they are so rare! I barely meet fellow South Asian women who share my interest in running as a hobby let alone a serious endeavor!  Also, as someone who found herself in running, I also tend to be a proselytizer. I want everyone who wants to be active to be able to do so to the greatest extent they can. Run a 5k, run a marathon, do a sprint tri, take on Ironman– do what your body lets you safely do (with proper training of course). Abdullah has put in her training and hours– she deserves the satisfaction and rewards that I am sure a competition brings.

As a participant in a male-dominated sport by any culture’s standards– Abdullah is an amazing role-model– regardless of whether she wants to be. Anyone who has ever wanted to be active, who doubted their ability to do so due to attire restrictions, can look at her and know that it is possible!

Also, Abdullah is 35, she was not born lifting weights– she started a few years ago! Any women can relate to the feeling of “I am too old” or “there is no way I could do that.” I politely disagree with anyone who thinks there is a cut-off date on an active lifestyle. Most people who are willing to put effort into training can find satisfaction in almost any athletic endeavor and be pleasantly surprised by what they can accomplish. As a caveat– I said most AND almost! I will keep it real– I feel confident that I will not be attempting a back-flip off a balance beam any time soon– you can insert your equivalent here.

Statistics do not lie– women athletes are empowered women! I think allowing Abdullah to compete would open the door for many women, with similar requirements, to take part in athletics– at a competitive and recreational level. I also hope a possible ruling by the IWF that is favorable to her would also propagate to other sports  where this has been an issue (as with the Iranian women’s soccer team).  It is my hope that any woman that wants to run around, kick a ball, lift ridiculously heavy weights, swim, or do anything athletic in her free time will ultimately be able to– regardless of age or religious background. My opinion on this is strong simply because of how I felt when someone told me to “stop running.”


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