French sportswear retailer Decathlon has abandoned plans to sell a hijab marketed towards female runners in France through its Kalenji label. What began as a response to popular demand in Morocco, where the Kalenji “hijab” is well received, the decision to market it in France was met with intense backlash with threats of boycott by politicians and of physical harm to staff by in-store customers.
Decathlon Signs Off
After hundreds of calls and emails, in addition to salespeople being threatened, Decathlon released a press release outlining its decision on February 26 (note that ‘teammates’ is the brand’s catch-all for staff):
Decathlon Suspends the Commercialization of the Kalenji Hijab Due to Threats Directed at its Teammates
Our mission is to make technical products that are by athletes, for athletes at fair prices all across the world. It is in this spirit that we developed the Kalenji “hijab” head cover based on requests by our Moroccan users. Due to violent polemic and threats that far exceed our willingness to meet the needs of our users, our priority is to now de-escalate the situation. With this context, we have suspended our project to commercialize this product in France out of concern for the security of our teammates.
-Kalenji & Decathlon
Why the controversy?
France upholds secularism as one of its core values, with the separation of church and state enshrined in a law passed in 1905 and the background for this, some say, extends back to the French Revolution where power was wrested from the church, aristocracy, and nobility and distributed to the people. While embracing multiculturalism, modern French society and its government remain highly resistant to overt displays of religious affiliation.
The argument in Tweets
The back-and-forth leading up to Decathlon’s recent decision can best be summed up by a Twitter exchange between Aurore Bergé, spokeswoman for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party and the brand’s community manager Yann.
Aurore: Sport frees. It does not subjugate. My choice as a woman and citizen is to no longer trust a brand that breaks with our values. Those that tolerate women in the public space only when they hide themselves do not love freedom.
Yann: Hello. For us, we are focused on the democratization of sport. The fact is some women run in a hijab, one that is often ill-suited for the activity. Our goal is simple: to offer them a suitable sports product, without judgement.
Aurore: You are focused on the democratization of a religious practice. And not of sport. A beautiful alliance of business and bigotry. Luckily, women have been free to run in our country since long before Decathlon!
In case you were wondering
Nike, which courted controversy of its own when it released its own running hijab, has marketed its version of the sports hijab in France since 2017. But because Decathlon is the largest sporting retailer in the world and a French company, the association between its decision and the threat to French values is inescapable.