When assessing public discourse on the appearance of hijab in pornography, one name particularly stands out. Born in Lebanon, to conservative Catholic parents, Sarah Joe Chamoun is now better known as Mia Khalifa. Mia Khalifa’s meteoric rise to prominence occurred via the world’s most popular free adult site, Porn Hub. There, shortly after the release of her most controversial shoot, in which she performed while wearing a headscarf style hijab, she became the most searched-for performer. This simple act of wearing the hijab propelled Mia to global recognition and prominence. Soon, militants from various terrorist organisations based in the Middle East issued death threats to the then 21-year-old. One particularly harrowing threat featured an image of the performer’s home. Following this meteoric rise, Mia left the industry and has mostly recently spoken out against it fiercely, claiming exploitation. However, despite turning her back on the industry, Mia Khalifa remains synonymous with hijab in pornography. In this extended post, I will attempt to make some sense of this phenomenon. As a Muslim adult performer myself, I would like to conclude with some personal reflections.

The image of the veiled, exotic Middle Eastern woman has fascinated Western imaginations, since the earliest days of orientalist expansionism. A mythical, mysterious and alien creature, her veil was considered a form of bondage to a stifling patriarchy. Denied a public image, basic rights and freedoms, this Muslim woman thus existed only in servitude. Whatever else it may not have been, exoticism and submissiveness were integral assumed qualities. Fast forward a few centuries to 2014 and we have Mia Khalifa’s Mia Khalifa is Cumming to Dinner, the explosion of her popularity and the propulsion of the “hijab porn” genre to prominence in public discourse.

Reflecting on her experiences in the industry, last summer, Mia returned to the public spotlight. In an interview with BBC’s HARDtalk, Mia described feeling forced to do the hijab scene: “Intimidation – I was scared. I knew that if I said no, it would. You know, they are not going to force you to do it, at that point that’s rape. No one is going to force you to have sex. But I was still scared.” She also added that she did indeed realise that she was doing something provocative: “I verbatim told them, ‘You guys are going to get me killed,’” she told HARDtalk host Stephen Sackur. Following Mia’s rise to prominence, Pakistani-American Onai Malik appeared as Nadia Ali in Women in the Middle East in 2015. Produced by PornFidelity, a company owned by husband-wife performer couple Ryan and Kelly Madison, the film features various vignettes depicting Middle Eastern women in a variety of stereotyped roles.

Speaking on her wearing of hijab during hardcore sexual scenes, Onai said at the time: “Growing up I’d hear rumors like, “That girl’s a slut, don’t let the scarf fool you.” I kept those scenarios in mind. If a hijabi were to be horny and wanting to fuck how would she fuck? I bring that to life on camera and people get mad about it because they want to keep it modest.” As part of the same interview, with the Daily Beast, she added: “I am doing porn as a Pakistani woman for the liberal movement, bringing women in a scarf or a head wrap to the camera. Now, it’s no longer behind closed doors. I don’t bring religion into porn. I’ve asked directors to take the word “Muslim” out of porn titles before. For me it’s about the Pakistani culture, not the religion.”

It’s interesting to note, these productions were released at a time when “the West,” meaning North America and both Eastern and Western Europe were experiencing considerable political upheaval. In 2013, Donald Trump’s political aspirations began to take shape. At the time, they most succinctly manifested themselves in the “Make America Great Again” campaign which was announced in June 2015. Of course, a key part of the campaign was its outrageous subtextual promulgation of xenophobia, with immigrants and Muslims particularly singled out. As the most recent stark images from the Capitol riot show, the Trump rallying call at that time has since proven extremely powerful.

Further afield, a major migration crisis was in full swing. As the Islamic State group terrorised swathes of Syria and Iraq, Turkey played spoiler, ferreting helpless civilians across the Mediterranean Sea towards European shores. At the peak of the crisis, around two thousand people sank in the sea. A particularly powerful image was that of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, whose family were fleeing violence in Kurdish areas of Syria. The influx of an unprecedented numbers of refugees stirred polarised political debate across Europe. Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders reverberated Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, across the Atlantic. This also coincided with the lead up to the EU referendum in the United Kingdom, which proved to be another very polarising and divisive subject of public discourse.

Thus, Mia Khalifa and Nadia Ali took their fateful steps of wearing the hijab during hardcore sexual scenes at a time when xenophobia had taken root in public discourse and had caused major political division. Here, some interesting pieces of anecdotal evidence prove extremely telling, when it comes to how the appearance of the hijab in pornography was received. According to data published by PornHub, during Donald Trump’s D-list Republican National Conference, searches related to Arab and Muslim porn, coming from Cleveland where the convention was hosted, increased by 204 per cent. Figures from Germany and the UK both suggest an increased interest in Arab, Muslim and “refugee” porn, around the time of critical political junctures. According to data from XHamster, searches related to these categories currently number around one million per month. Compared to figures from 2015, this shows an exponential rise in interest. Similarly, a spike in searches for these categories in the UK was observed during the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the summer election of 2017.

The global furore surrounding hijab in Western pornography, through Mia Khalifa’s rise to prominence, coincided with increased public interest in the Middle East and the emergence of xenophobic voices in public discourse. This trend was also observed in Europe, where searches spiked in various countries, around divisive political junctures. Ultimately, the hijab represents a Muslim woman’s modesty, the violation of which is an extremely evocative taboo. In a sexual context, this may be no more provocative than the images of nuns and priests commonplace in pornography. However, in a broader historical context, it does raise issues relating to negative stereotypes.

For me, the words of sexual scientist and cultural anthropologist Professor Jakob Pastotter ring the truest. Speaking to InfoMigrants, the academic described the phenomenon in this way: “Sexuality is a means to familiarize yourself with things that are alien to you. By approaching new phenomena from a sexual angle, we get to understand these things better.” In final conclusion, it seems to me that the appearance of the hijab in Western pornography went to show how far this otherwise “exoticised” garment was accepted for what it is. By defiling the hijab for the viewing pleasure of taboo-seekers, I believe pornography inadvertently accepted it for the symbol of modesty Muslims believe it to be.