A Sports Hijab Has France Debating the Muslim Veil, Again

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PARIS — Plans by a major sporting goods company in France to sell a hijab designed for runners have incited yet another debate over what Muslim women wear, exposing once again the tensions between secularism and religion in the country.

France’s longstanding attitudes toward feminism, secularism and the integration of immigrants are at the root of the many controversies, but they are also fueled by recent fears about Islamist terrorism, along with the rise of social media.

The most recent debate centers on plans by Decathlon, Europe’s largest sporting goods retailer, to sell the hijab, which covers the wearer’s head and neck. Criticism quickly came from many quarters, with one lawmaker saying that the debate laid bare “this obsession around the veil and Islam.”

Decathlon had started selling the sports hijab in Morocco last week and planned to do so in France. The move was quickly criticized on social media, and several politicians expressed discomfort about the product being sold in France.

Some even suggested a boycott.

“My choice as a woman and a citizen will be to no longer trust a brand that breaks with our values,” said Aurore Bergé, a spokeswoman for Republic on the Move, President Emmanuel Macron’s party. “Those who tolerate women in the public space only when they are hiding are not lovers of freedom.”

Decathlon initially stood firm, arguing that it was focused on “democratizing” sports and that Muslim women often ran with “ill-adapted” hijabs.

“Our goal is simple: to offer them a suitable sports product, without judging,” the company said in a statement on Twitter.

It’s unclear why Decathlon became the focus of such criticism. Nike already sells hijabs for runners in France, but it has not faced the same scrutiny, possibly because it’s not a French brand.

Some politicians defended Decathlon, with Aurélien Taché, a representative from Mr. Macron’s party, saying that France “would do well” without “this obsession around the veil and Islam.”

But Decathlon backtracked and on Tuesday, halting its plans to sell the sports hijab in France after — it said — salespeople were threatened in stores, some physically, and after it received hundreds of calls and emails.

One message accused the company of “betraying” France and “contributing to the Islamist invasion,” the company said.

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When Maryam Pougetoux wore a head scarf during a television interview, the French interior minister called her appearance “shocking.” CreditSara Farid for The New York Times

Since 2011, it has been illegal to wear a face-covering veil in public in France, but the hijab does not fall into that category.

Still, in recent years, Muslim women wearing the hijab and other garments have prompted friction — locally and on a national scale.

Last year, Maryam Pougetoux, a student union leader drew public ire after appearing on television wearing a head scarf.

In the summer of 2016, a nationwide debate erupted over the “burkini,” the full-body bathing suit designed for practicing Muslim women; the item was briefly banned in some coastal towns in southern France.

In some cases, other pieces of clothing have become the target of critics. In 2015, a French school sent a 15-year-old student home, saying that her long skirt was an “ostentatious sign” of her Muslim faith.

Since 2004, it has been illegal for students to wear any visible signs of religious affiliation.

Laïcité, the concept of state secularism, is a defining principle of the French republic, but it has often been a point of friction between Muslims and the state.

“France is a very secular society, which can be very virulent against any kind of religious expression, even those that are legal or do not threaten public order,” said Nicolas Cadène, a senior member of the Observatory of Secularism, an agency that assists the government in enforcing laïcité.

The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2017 that employer bans on hijabs in the private sector could be legal.

But the debate about the veil is no longer about its legality, but rather its symbolism.

On the right and far right, it is often seen as a rebuke of France’s secular values and a sign of a lack of integration. Across the political spectrum, the veil is often seen as an intrinsic symbol of submission that goes against gender equality, even when worn freely.

Some feminists say that wearing it sends the wrong signal to women elsewhere in the world who are fighting to live without it.

Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, wrote in The HuffPost on Wednesday that women should be allowed to wear the hijab, but that it was necessary to “question that choice.”

But others feminists and politicians on the left, as well as Muslim advocacy groups, argue that it is hypocritical to say hijab-wearing women are withdrawing from French society while criticizing garments like the burkini or sports hijabs designed to help them feel comfortable in public life.

Sylvie Eberena, 38, a Muslim entrepreneur and coach who runs a fitness website, said she found the discussions over attire “exhausting.”

“It’s not about politics or religion,” she said. “Every human being wants to feel good within their own bodies, so if a piece of clothing can help with that, why not?”

Since she began appearing in fitness videos wearing her hijab nearly a decade ago, Ms. Eberena said, she has seen many more veiled women practicing sports.

Laura Cha, a spokeswoman for the Muslim feminist organization Lallab, added that “for those who are not directly impacted by the hijab, it’s just one more controversy, but for Muslim women, it has some nefarious, long-lasting consequences.”

“It’s a shame that Decathlon didn’t stand firm,” Laetitia Gahoudi, 37, a Muslim entrepreneur and personal trainer, said on Wednesday.

“But we didn’t wait for Decathlon to sell a runner’s hijab to work out with our head scarves. And we will keep working out without them.”

NYT > World

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