French sports brand Decathlon has decided not to sell its hijab sportswear in France. Why are the French so threatened a piece of clothing?

Here we go again. Politicians in France are obsessed with the hijab and took their ire out on Decathlon forcing the sports shop to cancel the sale of 'running hijab' sportswear following fearmongering that it’s 'anti-feminist'.

The French sports giant had sparked the row when it launched a special hijab for female Muslim joggers. The piece of clothing started a debate over freedoms for Muslim women against France's strict secular values.

A social media storm ensued with outrage from some politicians including from Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche Party against Muslim head coverings.

Decathlon capitulated and said the outfit would not go on sale “at present” in France.

Agnes Buzyn, the health minister in Macron’s government, said on French Radio RTL of the garment, “It’s a vision of women that I don’t share. I would prefer if a French brand did not promote the headscarf.”

Aurore Berge, from Macron’s Party, tweeted her opposition, saying she would boycott the store which she accused of not respecting French values saying, “My choice as a woman and citizen will be to no longer trust a brand which breaks with our values.”

The controversy is the latest in France over 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. A woman's choice does not seem to be respected in France if it does not fit specifically into France's rigid interpretation of secularism.

France in 2004 banned the hijab, which covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered, from classrooms in schools and government offices, but it is a common sight in the country. Nicolas Sarkozy was Minister of Interior at the time and in 2007, was later elected president.

France is home to just over 4 million Muslims.

In 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government banned full-face coverings in France. He was accused by human rights groups of stigmatising Muslim women.

This is not the first time a sports garment in the form of hijab has sparked a public outcry in France.

A controversy over the 'burkini' swimwear in France in the summer of 2016 caused France's highest administrative court, the State Council (Conseil d'Etat) to set a precedent when it overturned a ban on the burkini swimsuit brought in by the town of Villeneuve-Loubet in the South East of France.

The court deemed the bans that had been introduced by around 30 coastal towns, mainly in the south, "a serious and illegal attack on fundamental freedoms."

Just as in 2016 some believe the reaction over the Decathlon sports hijab, especially from politicians, does not reflect well on France.

President Macron promised to unite the country, but with this row, we are again seeing further divisions open up over what is ostensibly a piece of cloth and a rather innocuous choice of clothing in the grand scheme of things.

Last year a contestant on the hit talent show, The Voice, was singing Leonard Cohen's song, 'Hallelujah'. Her performance caused all four members of the jury to turn their chairs in resounding approval. The young candidate, Mennel Ibtissem, was an instant sensation. But on social media, the story was different and Mennel was swiftly criticised for wearing the headscarf.

France has a problem with women wearing the veil. For some French people, it causes anxiety and many are quick to judge a woman who chooses to wear the hijab.

In Britain, where I live, such a row is not likely to happen as we see women who are TV presenters and even politicians who wear different varieties of the Muslim veil.

Let’s hope France modernises its approach to the veil, especially for Muslim women who are hated simply on the basis of something they choose to wear over their head.

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