Retailer Decathlon has cancelled plans to sell a sports version of the hijab Muslim headscarf in France, following an outcry.
“We are effectively taking the decision to not sell this product in France for now,” Decathlon official Xavier Rivoire told the RTL broadcaster Tuesday, despite defending to AFP earlier the company’s goal to “make sports accessible to all women in the world.”
The controversy is the latest in France over face- and body-covering garments worn by Muslim women, which many in the secular country perceive as instruments of women’s subjugation.
Others argue that they allow Muslim women to be an active part of broader society.
In 2004, France barred the hijab, which covers the hair but leaves the face open, from the classroom and government offices, but it is a common sight in the streets..
— Indy World (@IndyWorld) February 27, 2019
In 2016, the country with Europe’s largest Muslim population was deeply divided over the appearance on beaches of the body-concealing “burkini” swimsuit.
Decathlon already sells the runner’s hijab in its stores in Morocco, and had planned to introduce the garment to France in the coming weeks.
“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 neighborhood, every city, every country… regardless of her culture.”
Reports that Decathlon would introduce the sports hijab to France, however, raised public ire.
Such a product is “not forbidden by law,” Health Minister Agnes Buzyn responded 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.”
Aurore Berge, spokeswoman for President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party added that “sport emancipates, it does not suppress,” lambasting “those who tolerate women in a public space only when they hide themselves.”
Several political leaders called for a boycott over the issue.
French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet on Wednesday said she regretted the “hysterical” debate and stressed that selling such items would in no way break the law.
“I think there has been far too much hysteria over the matter, and I regret that,” Belloubet told BFM television.
Providing the face is not completely covered “there are no legal objections” to selling the running hijab, she added, deploring the fact that some political leaders had sought to exploit the issue.
Asked about her own personal opinion, Belloubet said: “I don’t see why women should force themselves to wear such clothes.”
Meanwhile, US sportswear group Nike offers a hijab for women in black, grey, or white for 30 euros ($34).