Decathlon under fire for introducing and then withdrawing Islamic sports attire plans for French market

Martin Banks - New Europe

French sporting goods retailer Decathlon has controversially decided to withdraw plans to launch a line of clothing with an Islamic veil for Muslim sportswomen after the products’ marketing sparked a major controversy among French politicians.

The company said on February 26 that it made “a conscious decision” to no longer advertise the product in France. The decision came after the company sparked an earlier row by launching a special hijab, or headscarf, for Muslim women joggers, which reignited the debate over the personal freedoms for observant Muslim women and France’s strict laws that guard the country’s mandated secularism.

The move from Decathlon, which can be seen as a business decision, raises the question of what happens when the religious freedom of the individual comes head to head with backlash from certain political quarters. According to Decathlon, the launch and Islamic sports garment in France followed a request by the company’s female customers in Morocco, where the product is already being sold.

The modified sports veil gives female runners “extra comfort and breathability” whilst still “covering their neck and heads” in accordance with certain Islamic laws governing the covering of a woman’s head.

Intolerance in politics

Leading French politicians, however, have lined up to criticise the move, including Health Minister Agnès Buzyn, who told French radio that he “would have preferred that a French brand not promote the veil”. Buzyn’s comments were supported by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, founder of France’s Eurosceptic nationalist party Debout La France also criticised Decathlon and even asked French shoppers to stop buying the company’s products.

“I’ve got two daughters who don’t want to live in a country where a woman’s place in society regresses in the same way as it has in Saudi Arabia,” Dupont-Aignan tweeted, adding, “I’m calling for a boycott of the Decathlon brand for promoting this type of clothing”.

France’s former justice minister, François Bayrou, also joined the chorus of those who called Decathlon’s move ‘provocative’ and suggested that the introduction of a sports hijab was unnecessary. “Muslim women who want to exercise put a knit cap on”, Bayrou said.

One of the few public figures coming to Decathlon’s defence has been Angélique Thibault, the head Decathlon’s Kalenji jogging range, who said she was inspired to design the piece in the hope that “every woman can run in every district, in every city, in every country, regardless of her sporting level, her state of fitness, her shape, and her budget. And regardless of her culture”.

The controversy over the status of Islamic cultural norms in France is only the latest in a series of political rows that have centred around the dress code of Muslim women in a country with nearly 10 million Muslims, roughly 6.6% of the population.

The conservative government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy banned full-face coverings in France in 2010 and was accused by rights groups of stigmatising Muslim women.

That original ban was followed six years later when scores of mayors in French coastal towns issued beach bans on “burkinis” – full-body swimsuits worn by some Muslim women.

The bans were swiftly ruled illegal by France’s highest administrative court, but the controversy surrounding the appearance of Islamic beachwear sparked an intense political debate about the French principle of laïcité – secularism built on the strict separation of church and state.

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