Back in 2007, The Australian’s “Heart of the Nation” marketing campaign provided us with a heartwarming glimpse of all that the newspaper said was best about this country. There at the heart of the heart of the nation was a young woman called Mecca Laa Laa, clad in a red and yellow burquini as she ran into the surf alongside her fellow life guards. That’s Australian.

Not anymore.

Mecca Laa Laa has a central place in the Faith, Fashion, Fusion exhibition that recently ended its Malaysian presentation after touring several Australian cities in the years since it first opened in 2012. This time, however, the national newspaper does not consider her to be an inspirational representation of Australian identity. Rather, it is outraged that DFAT, who sponsers the exhibition, is “spending taxpayers’ money pretending that Islamic dress is part of our cultural identity. It is not and never has been.”

Tony Abbott was also getting his budgie smugglers in a twist over the sponsorship. Where DFAT sees “obvious economic benefits” in targeting the region’s booming market in modest fashion, as well as “a platform to showcase Australia’s diverse, tolerant and multicultural society”, Abbott sees “a very unfortunate readiness to sell out mainstream Australian values”. After all, as the headline in the Daily Mail proclaims, “Australians show their arms and legs when they wear a bikini”.

Oh dear. This particular expression of Australian identity is beginning to sound very … French.

This of course is not the first time that DFAT has attempted to showcase Australia’s tolerance and diversity, only to have Australian politicians and media decide to showcase Australia’s racism and narrow-mindedness instead. See, for example, Yassmin Abdel-Mageid’s visit to the Middle East last year to “promote Australia as an open, innovative and diverse nation”, which according to some commentators was actually a “Sharia apologist’s book tour”.

However, if recent advertising campaigns are anything to go by, more and more corporations are deciding that racism – and Islamophobia in particular – might make for easy political capital, but it is very bad for business. Rising prosperity among Muslim consumers around the world is cited as an incentive for companies and societies to promote themselves in ways that are attractive to this lucrative market.

Alongside modest fashion, halal-certified groceries and sharia-compliant financial services are cited as products that can enhance access to this promising emerging market. The loss of sales to the valuable Muslim consumer market is regularly cited as one of the “costs” of Islamophobia, with reports that the French ban on burqas had led to an exodus of wealthy Arab customers from Paris to London.

Independent modest fashion designers like the ones featured in the Australian exhibition are fast being swamped by Muslim-friendly lines from major brands ranging from Marks and Spencers to H&M. In 2016, a hijab-clad woman featured in PlayBoy as one of “eight men and women who aren’t afraid to break the rules”. Australia’s Ahide Zanetti designed the burquini after not being able to find suitable sportswear for her hijab-observant niece. Now, she can go down to her local sports shop and purchase a Nike Pro Hijab.

In 2015, a Twitter account reportedly linked to ISIS appropriated the famous L’Oreal slogan with a meme showing a young girl in a headscarf next to the line “COVERed girl: Because I’m worth it. The make up giant has now decided that “covered girls” are worth it, last week briefly announcing its first hijab-wearing model, only to have her step aside after now-deleted tweets against the state of Israel were publicised. But someone else will surely take her place in proclaiming the message that headscarf-wearing women still want to have great hair.

When the curators of the Faith, Fusion and Fashion exhibition asked me to write an essay for their book back in 2011 I suggested that they had missed their moment – surely everyone was sick of talking about the hijab? I could not have been more wrong. Plenty of Muslim women do not cover their hair, of course – as I write, Iranian women are under arrest for the defiant removal of their headscarves. But the global modest fashion industry continues to boom, and racism is never out of fashion.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey