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Two Muslim Women Use Social Media to Empower Others in Unconventional Sports

Two Muslim women, who found a sense of accomplishment by being involved in sports are now helping to empower other women

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Muslim women Kulsoom Abdullah. Image source: VOA
  • Abdullah appealed the dress code of USA Weightlifting national competition in 2010 to honor her faith as a Muslim woman, which was denied
  • News media picked up her story and her friends took on social media, one year later, she became the first Muslim female to participate in the championship
  • Shareefy, who has a similar background, uses rock climbing as a tool to develop young entrepreneurs in Afghanistan

Muslim women Kulsoom Abdullah and Mariam Shareefy who found courage only when they were challenged both mentally and physically. Both found a sense of accomplishment by being involved in sports and are now helping to empower other women.

Abdullah, 38, who comes from a very conservative area of Pakistan, became interested in recreational weightlifting in her early 20s.

She qualified to compete in a USA Weightlifting national competition in 2010 but chose not to because she was not comfortable wearing the required uniform — a form-fitting singlet leotard with short sleeves and shorts that leaves most of the arms and legs bare so that officials can see if arms and knees lock, as required in competition.

She wanted to compete yet stay covered to honor her faith as a Muslim woman.

Abdullah appealed the dress code and the group denied her.

Social media campaign

After hearing Abdullah had lost her appeal, her friends started a social media campaign. When the news media picked up her story, Abdullah began to advocate for a change to the association’s dress code.

With the added media attention, Abdullah found her attire was getting more attention than her actual skills, she said.

“It was my attire, not my skills, which made me stand out in the beginning. Seeing a woman covered from head to toe participating in a sport like weightlifting was found rather unusual by the media,” said Abdullah, who became the first Muslim female to participate in the USA Weightlifting national championships 2011 with her head covered.

Abdullah told VOA that she is passionate about weightlifting and was fully aware of the sport’s dress code when she began.

Her website LiftingCovered.com and Facebook page document her weightlifting journey. She advocated to compete in clothing that adheres to religious codes, opening the door for women from cultures around the world to compete.

Her efforts bore fruit and USA Weightlifting, and later the International Weightlifting Federation, modified their rules, allowing Abdullah and others like her to compete while wearing a headscarf.

Kulsoom Abdullah, 38, who comes from a very conservative area of Pakistan, became interested in recreational weightlifting in her early 20s.

Kulsoom Abdullah, 38, who comes from a very conservative area of Pakistan, became interested in recreational weightlifting in her early 20s.

International competitor

Abdullah represented Pakistan at the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships as the first female on the international level to compete while wearing a hijab.

While female participants can compete in international weightlifting events while covered, Abdullah is modest about her accomplishment.

“It doesn’t really feel like I did anything amazing, because I was just trying to be able to do something I was interested in, while not compromising on my values and beliefs,” Abdullah said. “It’s still hard to believe that I’ve done something that affects so many other women around the world.

“In my case, and not just for me, my obstacle was being able to compete while observing my religious dress code, which was here in the USA. Attire can also be an additional obstacle for women in majority Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman (which sent women for the first time to the 2012 summer Olympics),” she said. “Islam gets misrepresented in the media a lot, but what was great in my case, it has helped me make a change.”

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She credits her success as an athlete and advocate to the unflinching support of her family, especially her father.

Abdullah, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, is currently not competing in the sport, but she continues to help by training other women in weightlifting.

Mariam Shareefy founded AERCS (Afghanistan's Entrepreneurship and Rock Climbing School), a nonprofit organization that uses rock climbing as a tool to develop young entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

Mariam Shareefy founded AERCS (Afghanistan’s Entrepreneurship and Rock Climbing School), a nonprofit organization that uses rock climbing as a tool to develop young entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

Rock climbing school

Shareefy, who comes from the same region and has a similar background as Abdullah, founded AERCS (Afghanistan’s Entrepreneurship and Rock Climbing School), a nonprofit organization that uses rock climbing as a tool to develop young entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Shareefy is training the Afghan immigrant community in Colorado how to rock climb.

Her own journey started when her family, after spending nearly two decades as refugees in Pakistan, decided to return to Afghanistan.

As Shareefy’s family traveled from Peshawar to Kabul, she said she found Afghanistan to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. When she saw the Mahipar rock formation, she decided she wanted to learn more about the rock faces and how to climb them.

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“The Afghan community here (in Colorado) is huge. They feel isolated and find it very hard to adapt to American culture,” Shareefy told VOA, adding that she wants to use her program to “make sure they become part of this (American) culture and not feel isolated.”

Colorado similarities

While her interest in rock climbing was sparked in Afghanistan, Shareefy finds unparalleled beauty and opportunity in the mountainous and scenic city of Boulder, Colorado.

“Colorado is beautiful, especially its mountains and rocks. Here I have plenty of opportunities to master my skills, this place is known for its rock faces,” she said. “There is no comparison between the opportunities I have here and that in Afghanistan and I want to avail them.”

Shareefy knows the significance of sports in empowering women and shaping their future. That is why she is not only engaging Afghan women refugees in the United States but also has started a project in Afghanistan for children, especially girls.

“We have started a project in Afghanistan for youth that teaches entrepreneurship through hiking,” she said. (VOA)

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About 2M Children in Afghanistan Suffer Acute Malnutrition: UNICEF

But UNICEF is struggling to fund its operation. The agency needs an immediate injection of $7 million, Boulierac said

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FILE - A boy walks inside what is left of a home in Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, March, 3, 2019. The U.N. Children's Fund is appealing for money to treat Afghanistan's malnourished children. VOA

About two million children in Afghanistan are acutely malnourished. Of those, 600,000 face severe acute malnutrition, the most dangerous form of undernutrition in children, said Christophe Boulierac, a spokesman for the U.N. Children’s Fund.

“Any child suffering from severe acute malnutrition is a crisis and needs to be treated to survive,” he said. “We cannot tell you how many children will die, but we can tell you that a child with severe acute malnutrition is 11 times more likely to die than their healthy peers.”

Afghanistan, alongside Yemen and South Sudan, is among the countries with the highest numbers of children under age five suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Severe drought in 2018 has worsened the situation.

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But UNICEF is struggling to fund its operation. The agency needs an immediate injection of $7 million, Boulierac said. Pixabay

Recent nutrition surveys across Afghanistan find 22 out of 34 provinces are above the emergency threshold of acute malnutrition. Last year, UNICEF provided life-saving assistance to nearly half of the country’s most nutritionally deprived children. It is aiming to reach 60 percent, or 375,000, of those children this year. But UNICEF is struggling to fund its operation. The agency needs an immediate injection of $7 million, Boulierac said.

“We are the sole provider of this treatment against severe acutely malnourished children,” he told VOA. “We need urgent funding in three weeks, otherwise, we will not send the necessary ready-to-use therapeutic food treatment to the 1,300 health facilities that are waiting for that.”

ALSO READ: Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh Face Serious Water Shortage

This year, UNICEF has provided treatment to more than 73,000 severely malnourished children. Boulierac said plans are in place to immediately scale up the operation to reach more children as soon as more money is available.

He also warned that the nutritional status of Afghanistan’s children is likely to worsen without more secure funding in the pipeline. (VOA)