Women slam Decathlon's backtrack over sports hijab

'Gendered Islamophobia': Muslim women slam Decathlon's backtrack over sports hijab
4 min read
27 February, 2019
The outcry in France over the launch of a sports hijab has been met with equal push-back from those calling out the hypocrisy at the heart of the to-and-fro saga.
Decathlon's sports hijab was a sell-out success in Morocco [Facebook]

Sports retailer Decathlon has been ridiculed for backtracking on plans to sell a sports version of the hijab in France, following a public outcry.

The company has been locked in a to-and-fro saga since its announcement on Tuesday it would launch a sports hijab, sparking a barrage of complaints from the French public which led to plans being cancelled just hours later.

"We are effectively taking the decision to not sell this product in France for now," Decathlon official Xavier Rivoire told France's RTL broadcaster on Tuesday, despite earlier having defended the company's goal to "make sport accessible to all women in the world."

The company’s decision to sell the headcovering has sparked the latest controversy in France over face- and body-covering garments worn by Muslim women.

The company said its customer service team received more than 500 calls and emails on Tuesday morning and that staff in its stores had “been insulted and threatened, sometimes physically”.

One Twitter user pointed out the glaring islamophobia underscoring the whole saga: “Yesterday in France, #Decathlon, a sport’s brand, unveiled a sport hijab. Today, in France Decathlon had to remove that sport hijab out of fear for the safety of their employees and collaborators after receiving insults and threats. But islamophobia isn’t real”, they posted.

Author Ruqaya Izzidien pointed out the age-old hypocrisy surrounding the debate, telling The New Arab: “Those who criticise the hijab claim to be defending women’s rights but the insult is twofold.”

“By calling for the knee-jerk boycott of a brand whose product allows women in hijab to play sports, critics exclude Muslim women from the very public participation that they claim to support, while at the same time echoing the dehumanising, disempowering and sexist refrain that a Muslim woman can’t possibly make her own decisions,” she said.

Critics of Decathlon’s backtrack have pointed out that the retailer sells skiing balaclavas and a host of other head- and face-covering sports wear.

Luke Baker, Reuters’ Paris Bureau Chief tweeted: “Skiing balaclava that completely covers your face - fine. Running hijab so that Muslim women can cover their hair while exercising - no way.”

Shireen Ahmed, a Canada-based sports activist and writer also slammed the decision.

"I am exhausted, unsurprised and angered by French feminists who pretend to be advocates of women's rights by stomping all over the rights of Muslim women," she told The New Arab.

"The arguments are always against Muslim women. Either they aren't adapting or integrating into French society enough, or when they try to by participating in recreational activities swimming, or running- their inclusion is obstructed," she added. 

"Gendered Islamophobia is real. It attacks us viciously under the guise of liberation, laïcité or something else," she also tweeted.

Decathlon planned to launch the runner’s hijab in France following its sell-out popularity in its stores in Morocco.

"The craze for the product (in Morocco) made us ask whether to make it available" in other countries too, said Rivoire, adding the garment "leaves the face free and visible."

Angelique Thibault, who created the garment for Decathlon's Kalenji running brand, said she was "motivated by the desire that every woman should be able to run in every neighbourhood, every city, every country... regardless of her culture."

However the decision triggered a public backlash, with even senior political figures weighing in. Aurore Bergé, the spokeswoman for Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche party threatened to boycott the retailer if it continued with plans to sell the sports hijab.

Bergé tweeted that "sport emancipates, it does not suppress," lambasting "those who tolerate women in a public space only when they hide themselves."

Such a product is "not forbidden by law," Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said on RTL, but "it is a vision of women that I do not share. I would have preferred that a French brand not promote the veil."

Critics lamented politicians’ involvement which seems to have overblown such a minor issue.

“The fact that those who dislike Decathlon’s sports hijab turn a non-issue into a matter of state, rather than simply not buying it betrays the true nature of the French state’s supposed secularism,” Izzidien told The New Arab.

Meanwhile, others championed Nike’s range of sports hijabs, which launched last year.

#Decathlon, screw you! @Nike does it better anyways,” posted on Twitter user.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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