It has been 30 years since France began incessantly debating about the wearing of the hijab.
France has a magical recipe for starting national debates: whenever you speak publicly about Muslim women who are covered, you can bet for sure that it will lead to a major controversy.
A couple of weeks ago, Decathlon, a French sports brand, announced the arrival of a new item: a hijab for runners.
In a shockingly unanimous move, politicians from all across the spectrum firmly condemned the marketing of the garment by the French brand saying that they were offending so-called “French values.”
Decathlon responded on Twitter: “we deny none of our values. We have done our best to make sports practice accessible everywhere in the world. That hijab was needed for certain runners and we are responding to that sporting need.”
That did not calm anyone down. On the contrary, elected officials were outraged.
Everybody though agreed on one point: Decathlon’s decision was not illegal, women have the right to wear their hijab outside and any private company is free to sell them.
However, President of the Senate Gerard Larcher said, “Making money with everything does not fit my ethics,” adding that he was against “everything that could lock women up,” which is quite paradoxical given the fact that sporting hijabs are meant to allow women to run outside.
MP Jean-Christophe Lagarde said on February 27 on the France 2 channel that it was “a commercial attitude that was aiming to capture a customer base but mainly to support a movement that the Republic has to fight.”
Both of those politicians are pro-business and advocate in favour of a free market. How can they at the same time intervene in the commercial decision of a private company and criticise them for trying to make money and catering to a new customer base?
Don’t we live in a capitalist country?
Secretary of women’s rights Marlene Schiappa wrote, “I do not think that the law can be the only reading grid here, to the detriment of a political analysis of the facts.”
In other words, it was not about respecting the laws but an undefined conception of moral decency, which has no official definition. This blurry idea of Frenchness was echoed by the president of the Paris region Valerie Pecresse when she declared on March 4, on RTL channel, “We have to defend a certain image of the woman.”
The question here is not what a Muslim woman has the right to do but how she should present herself to be acceptable to the French mainstream culture. According to all those statements, above the law stand a number of superior values that are fed by the fantasy of a white France, in which all the citizen with another cultural background have to assimilate.
And when it comes to Muslim women, politicians who usually remain silent on women’s rights suddenly become the fiercest advocates for gender equality.
After 24 hours of protests, and physical threats against its employees by angry customers infuriated by the successive statements made by public figures, Decathlon decided to withdraw the hijabs from its French stores.
March 2019 was the 15 anniversary of the law that bans “conspicuous” religious signs in public schools, including banning Muslims students from wearing the hijab from middle and high schools. A recent study led by American scholars from Stanford University showed that the law has had a negative impact on the autonomy and educational outcomes of those students.
For the past 15 years, in the name of women’s emancipation, women have been banned from the public sphere because of their headscarves.
Women’s right to be part of a TV talent show, to escort their children to extra-curricular activities, to be a student union leader, to be a guest on a TV news show, to run for office, to work, to wear a long skirt at school, to be nannies , to volunteer in a charity restaurant, to go swimming at the beach, to have a booth at a Christmas market, to apply for a job, to have a commercial at a women’s fair and, now to practice running, have been questioned.
Whenever a Muslim woman demands her rights and proves that she is not submissive, she is reminded that she should remain invisible.
While claiming to stand for women’s rights and for fighting women’s "submission", our politicians have been doing their best to prevent them from doing anything out of their homes.
How is it possible to promote feminism while working so hard to exclude Muslim women from the public sphere?
Our country, which celebrates individual fulfilment, seems unable to understand that it applies to everyone whatever their backgrounds and beliefs are.
As major political and social crises continue in France, top politicians have decided to focus their attention on a piece of fabric.
And of course, none of the Muslim women who are first affected by the availability of the hijab in stores were interviewed to be able to share their own perspective.
Every single person who expressed an opinion about Decathlon’s commercial strategy, did it on the behalf of those women, presuming that they had to be liberated from their own choices. A study led by the Institut Montaigne showed that the voices of French Muslim women who wear the headscarf remains unheard.
Last year President Emmanuel Macron was interviewed about the rejection of the hijab by a large segment of the French population and said that the hijab “was not in accordance with the civility of our country.”
Such a statement authored by a person who should be the guardian of human rights fuels a general sentiment of Islamophobia, and we know now how impactful and terrible the consequences of such widespread hate can be.
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