The controversy over France's Decathlon athletic hijab is a symbol for misunderstood secularism. Let's leave the regulation of clothing to those who practice it so well, from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban.
PARIS — I have always loved strolling through the aisles of Decathlon, letting myself be tempted by all the sports I will never practice. I come home full of lycra clothing, which, I have to admit, generally ends up in my closet. Of course, I have a few reservations — I do not gravitate towards the outfits for shot put nor the athletic hijabs. But their presence on the shelves would not surprise me. To each their own. Hefty He-Men have the right to throw hammers and veiled women have the right to run, don't they? Apparently not, as decreed by the league of virtue of politics and media.
Since, in this case, the good sense of tolerance doesn't seem to be enough, let's review the two main arguments against this piece of cloth. First of all, secularism. When did secularism become synonymous with forbidden? We must read the work of historian Jean Bauberot to understand at which point the original concept of secularism became distorted. The law of 1905 is effectively more liberal than its current interpretation. Its author, Aristide Briand, opposed the "complete secularism" proposed by the Jacobins. He was not looking to promote an atheist state, but rather to allow the coexistence of many religions (the law explicitly targets the separation of church and state).
Decathlon's running hijab — Photo: Lydia Guiros via Twitter
It was therefore not a question of distinguishing between a public space which would be neutral and a religious sphere which would be intimate! The deputies were opposed to the ban on wearing cassocks in public. "From this serf, from this slave, let us make a man," argued the author of this rejected amendment. It's the old Rousseauist reflex that we find today in response to the athletic hijab: to force men — and women — to be free. Secularism was not designed to strip citizens of their religious beliefs, but to enable them to practice their faith independently.
Obscurantism is opposed by the "sole power of reason and truth," Aristide Briand explained to those who wanted to eradicate it by decree. We must distinguish, on the one hand, secularism as political framework and, on the other hand, the process of secularization, the work of a socio-cultural dynamic. In other words, the better intellectual argument concerning the hijab is that we cannot stop anyone from wearing it, nor from doing sport.
Forcing men — and women — to be free.
The second argument is that of female emancipation. When a veil is mentioned, we see the worst machos become ardent feminists. Enough with the hypocrisy! Let's take a sartorial counter-example of better taste, that of the garter belt. Oscillating between pure pornography and sexy lingerie, it reflects male domination in the crudest way. Is it because it turns the woman into a tied-up prisoner waiting for the man, or because it turns her into a gift to unwrap, or because it strips her without having her undress? Still, the garter belt, which can be worn "voluntarily" or under the subtle constraint of a birthday gift, reproduces a secular pattern of patriarchal oppression.
Already during the times of the Hundred Years' War, Edward III of England joked about the garter of his favorite mistress, which fell at a ball: "Shame on him who thinks ill of it," he quipped, thus giving birth to the motto of the British monarchy. Sophia Loren, playing a prostitute, made it an essential part of her striptease in the movie Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, under the lascivious eyes of her client, Marcello Mastroianni. Yet, it does not seem like garter belts are the subject of violent campaigns on social media. Society has admitted that, whether visible or not, they belong to the private sphere, and that the roles of domination can sometimes be reversed in intimate conversations that cannot be judged. In what way is a demimondaine in a garter belt less subject to male desire than a single Muslim woman?
I have no sympathy for monotheism and I dream of living in a world finally free of transcendence and its rituals. But leave the regulation of clothing to those who practice it so well, from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban. If France has values, it's good to let its citizens believe in what they want, dress how they want, and define their own dignity.