Behind the Rise of Hijab Porn


This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Last year, BangBros released a threesome scene between a caucasian “biker,” his “Middle Eastern girlfriend,” and her “stepmom.” The latter two are both wearing headscarves in the clip. Needless to say, they don’t sit around the kitchen table and debate the merits of a one-state solution. They fuck.

The title is pretty revealing: Mia Khalifa Is Cumming for Dinner. A play on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 American comedy-drama exploring interracial marriage in a—for the time—pretty groundbreakingly positive portrayal. BangBros must have known their entirely different cross-culture interaction wasn’t going to play well with everyone. In fact, they were probably banking on it.

Lebanon-born, US-based porn star Khalifa herself must have had an inkling the scene would shock. Was she consciously courting such controversy? I tried to reach out to Khalifa through various channels, but was told that she was in “lockdown with PornHub.” The porn site also declined to comment.

In a matter of months, Khalifa went from a relative nobody to the poster girl of the US porn industry—overtaking the recently retired Lisa Ann as PornHub’s highest-ranked adult star. In the age of internet porn, dominated by tube sites, there is no bigger accolade. And Khalifa owed it all to the fallout from that one hijab-featuring scene.

Predictably, the use of traditional female Muslim dress—which appears to be nothing more than an incendiary prop—sparked outrage. Trolls took to Twitter to call Khalifa “shameful.” Others threatened to chop her head off. One guy even took the time to mock up Khalifa in an orange jump suit, on her knees, in what one can only imagine is supposed to depict the prelude to an ISIS beheading.

Even her family got on board. “We are probably paying the price of living away from our homeland; our kids had to adapt to societies that don’t resemble our culture, traditions, and values… We hope that she comes back to her senses as her image does not honor her family or Lebanon,” they said in a statement.

Khalifa took the whole thing in stride, perhaps buoyed by her burgeoning fanbase (American duo Timeflies even recorded a song about her, now with more than 1.4 million plays on SoundCloud). As she told one hater who threatened her with a beheading: “Long as it’s not my tits. They were expensive.” Another, who warned Khalifa that she’ll be “the first person in Hellfire,” was told: “I’ve been meaning to get a little tan recently.”

She may have been making light of the matter, but through measured interviews, Khalifa—who is not a Muslim—said she wasn’t ignorant to the cultural sensitivity of the scene. She told the Washington Post that scenes with a hijab are “satirical” and that “Hollywood movies depict Muslims in a much worse manner than any scene BangBros could produce.”

Eventually, she vented on Twitter. “Doesn’t the Middle East have more important things to worry about besides me?” she wrote. “How about finding a president? Or containing ISIS?”

Put in context, the outrage does rather seem a waste of cyberspace. But like it or not, hijab porn is Khalifa’s fledgling legacy. Adult film director and writer Jacky St James, profiled in January by Salon as “The Woman Who Conquered Porn,” believes Khalifa’s scene has “all the makings of a publicity stunt,” and one that “clearly succeeded in creating the controversy it was hoping for.” But she’s reluctant to assume the use of the hijab will create a new trend.

“It will depend entirely on whether it sells,” she says. “With all the online piracy happening to the industry today, so much of the content shot is reliant upon this.”

Some sectors of the industry clearly think it will, as hinted at by the influx of studio-shot scenes. First came BangBros, then, in February, Texan Chloe Amour starred as a woman from Dubai in a scene for Fantasy Massage (insisting she wanted a female masseur, but getting a male one—go figure), and last month TeamSkeet releasedCream Filled Middle Eastern Beauty.

Most of these scenes play on the notion of the Middle Eastern woman as the innocent yet obedient sexual object, subjugated to do anything a man asks of her. Which, in most cases, is giving a blow job. In these scenes, the hijab or headscarf is used as an insignia for “Middle Eastern girl,” a way to tell the viewer (along with the bashful glances and often feigned Middle Eastern accents) that this girl is a sexually repressed “Arab” ready and willing to bow down to her Western master.

But can the hijab really be seen as nothing more than a prop, in the same way that thick-rimmed specs and a short skirt, or a cheerleader costume and pom-poms are props for naughty secretaries and school girls, respectively? Don’t the enduring politics and wider conversations surrounding hijabs, religion, and women’s rights across the Middle East make it difficult to see hijabs out of context?

Commentators on the Adult DVD Talk forum don’t seem to think so. “There will always be a market for this kind of porn as long as Muslim people are so uptight about sex,” says aptly-named user, “Bellend.”

But what are Bellend and others’ stereotypes about the Middle East being some kind of sexless wasteland actually based on?

“The supposed licentiousness of the West is forever being contrasted, to my mind, in wholly spurious ways, with a sexually barren Middle East,” John R. Bradley, author ofBehind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East, told Salonin 2010, shortly before removing himself from public life due to ill health.

Behind the Veil of Vice, he continues, was an attempt to undermine “stereotypes about Arab sexualities that have become entrenched in the English-speaking world [and] it debunks the notion, promoted by the likes of Martin Amis, that terrorism carried out by Islamists can be explained away with reference to the repressed, envious Arab male who can only find release by flying airliners into phallic-shaped skyscrapers.”

The book explored the idea that watching pornography is “no longer a big deal for young Arabs, any more than it is for young Americans,” and that “just about anyone in the Middle East with a satellite dish has access to hardcore pornography channels,” albeit illegal ones only accessed by satellite decoders. Statistics prove it. According to recent Google data, six of the top eight porn-searching countries are Muslim states (Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey). The most popular porn searches of 2014 by country reflect a trend for the “hijab”—the search term ranked number four in Morocco and number five in Algeria.

Clearly, demand for hijab porn is high. If you type the word into the search bar of Pornhub or xvideos, you’ll see thumbnail after thumbnail of porn featuring the headscarf—some cam stuff, lots of homemade POV and the odd budget studio job. But if porn is illegal in most Middle Eastern countries and Muslim states, where does it all come from?

“Men and women all over the Arab world not only watch porn, they film themselves engaging in sexual relations or masturbating, and post the clips on the internet,” Eyal Sagui Bizawe recently wrote in an article for Israeli website Haaretz. “These are watched by Arabs from various countries who want to hear sex talk in their own language, and by surfers everywhere who are tired of the rigid and monotonous Western model of beauty.”

User-generated content of this kind, posted on platforms such as Vine and Periscope, is the antithesis of studio-produced adult video. There’s no market, profit margins, or overheads. There is only content, created by one person for another person, and often shared secretly and involuntarily. As a result, it reflects a society’s sexuality in its truest form. This is not subjugation. This is representation.

“Regardless of one’s perspective on the hijab, there are many women in the world who wear them and, as such, the garment’s presence in porn showcases yet another moment of human diversity,” says Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of the upcoming book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment.

Can we honestly say, though, that the hijab appearing in adult content (even with the user-generated stuff) actually shines a positive light on the sexuality of women in the Middle East?

“Though not without controversy and definitely not without mixed reactions, I would say so, yes,” says TIbbals. “As a finished product, porn cannot be considered a literal or ‘real’ reflection of anyone or anything. It’s a contrived production, just like any other media or narrative.”

Actual people, however, are present in porn.

“Yes, and if said actual existing people creating user-generated content are also women in the Middle East, for example, these representations must show some dimension of sexualities,” she continues. “Even if it’s just that there are people interested in producing erotic media in regions of the globe that we, as US people, don’t generally think of as porn hubs.”

It’s probably fair to say that most of us in the West have only a very surface-level understanding of Middle Eastern sexuality. As another commentator on the Adult DVD Talk forum writes: “I think you might be missing the point of Mia Khalifa wearing a hijab. It’s not just a political statement. This kind of thing is a turn-on for many guys in strict Muslim countries. I’ve spent a few years in such a country. And I know it for a fact that a woman wearing a hijab and covering everything except her eyes looks very sexy and attractive. It’s a cultural kind of thing that perhaps people in the West don’t understand.”

The producers at BangBros may well have shot Mia Khalifa Is Cumming for Dinner to cash in on the West’s stereotypical ideas of Arab girls. But by owning it, Khalifa—a woman with Middle Eastern roots making headway in mainstream Western pornography—has sparked a debate about the reverse of that very idea: the apparent and already occurring sexual liberation of such women.

“The adult industry is more diverse than people may realize,” says St James. “There are lines glorifying a wide variety of types: body size, breast size, butt size, race, tatted women, older women, younger women.” Porn is no longer just the bleach-blond woman with gigantic breasts performing only the most extreme sex acts. As St. James says: “That model isn’t an accurate representation of the industry anymore.”

– by Gareth May