Hijab for Muslim runners provokes controversy in France

23-year-old Majiziya Bhanu is the only Muslim bodybuilder in India who always sports a hijab when she trains or when she performs on stage. Photo: IANS.

PARIS – Yet again, France has descended into controversy over the prospect of what Muslim women might choose to wear.

This time, the item in question is a hijab for runners, a product that appeared on the website of the sporting goods company Decathlon and was designed to allow observant Muslim women a chance to exercise in public while adhering to traditional codes of modesty.

Much like the “burkini” swimsuit in 2016, the runner’s hijab has set off a bitter national debate. What began as the usual Twitter tempest has now seemingly become a matter of state, with top officials taking a break from any number of political crises to address the allegedly offensive garment.

“It’s a vision of the woman that I do not share. As a woman, that’s how I live,” Health Minister Agnès Buzyn said Tuesday morning on French radio. “All that leads to differentiation bothers me. I would have preferred a French brand not to promote the veil.”

While the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front) called the runner’s hijab a “new intrusion of Islamic communitarianism in public space,” there were notable attacks from nominally left-wing French feminists, as well.

Left-wing senator and former women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol shared a statement from France’s International League for Women’s Rights, which decried the new hijab as an item “whose sole purpose is to prolong sexual apartheid.”

Aurore Bergé, a spokeswoman for Republic on the Move, the party of President Emmanuel Macron, criticized the hijab and Decathlon, a rare use of a public platform to single out a business.

“My choice as a woman and a citizen will be to no longer trust a brand that breaks with our values,” Bergé wrote on Twitter. “Those who tolerate women in the public space only when they are hiding are not lovers of freedom.”

Decathlon fired back, responding directly to Bergé’s comment. “From our end, we focus on democratizing the practice of sport,” a spokesman wrote. “The fact is that some women practice running with a hijab, which is often unsuitable. Our goal is simple: to offer them an adapted sport product, without judgment.”

Amid the firestorm, Decathlon has temporarily removed the runner’s hijab from its website but told the French press that it will be available in France starting in March.

For Laura Youkana, a spokeswoman for the Muslim feminist organization Lallab, the furor showcases “enormous contradictions.” The irony, she noted, is that the product – much like the burkini – was evidence of a larger number of Muslim women seeking to participate in public life, not withdraw from it.

“Those who attack the hijab speak in the name of women’s rights, but this is something that actually enables a woman to practice sports, and sports is something that emancipates women,” she said in an interview.

“It’s very symbolic,” Youkana said of the hijab. “It makes sports more accessible to all women.”

This is a perception shared in much of the United States, where as recently as Sunday, a Nike commercial titled “Dream Crazier” and narrated by tennis star Serena Williams aired during the Oscar awards. The ad featured several female athletes breaking barriers and being called “crazy” for daring to do so. One of those featured was fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics with a hijab.

“A woman competing in a hijab? Changing her sport, landing a double-cork 1080 or winning 23 grand slams? Having a baby and then coming back for more? Crazy, crazy, crazy and crazy,” went Williams’ narration.

In France, where Williams was attacked for wearing a black catsuit to the 2018 French Open, the feeling is apparently not mutual.

What Muslim women choose to wear is a controversial topic in France, an officially secular society that prohibits religious signs and symbols in public life – except, of course, for the nativity scenes and Christmas trees that decorate town halls during the holiday season. Government agencies, likewise, shut down on virtually every Catholic holiday.

In 2004, France banned the hijab in public schools, and in 2010, it became the first European nation to ban the burqa, which covers a woman’s face. Veiled women face regular scrutiny in public life.

In 2018, Maryam Pougetoux, a student union leader, appeared in a hijab during an interview on national television that had nothing to do with Islam. The interview launched a similar polemic that landed her on the cover of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which depicted her as a monkey.

At the time, she was 19.

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