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Why Mia Khalifa’s Hijab video controversy might just have been clever marketing

Mia Khalifa, a Lebanese-born porn star in the US, has shot to fame with her ‘controversial’ adult video wherein she is seen engaging in a sexual act with a hijab on. Her meteoric rise to fame is interesting not only because she was rather conspicuous on the ‘porn’ scene by her absence until the appearance of this ‘controversial’ video on Pornhub (ranked the 73rd most popular website on the Internet, according to analytics company Alexa) but also because this sudden claim to fame has made her the most ‘popular’ porn actress on the site, effectively dethroning former Pornhub queen Lisa Ann.

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Mia Khalifa

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Even more interesting is the international conversation her ‘controversial’ video has sparked. The discussion vacillates from her being a disgrace to her native country to her being a free individual with a right to exercise her volition in anything that pertains to her life and everything in between. Not only has the backlash from her own country been severe but she has also received death threats for shaming Islam. A doctored image of her head superimposed upon a hostage being threatened by Islamic State Extremists is doing the rounds too!

Whilst there are several ways of looking at the whole case, we shall adopt a step-by-step deconstruction of the controversy, and try and understand the implications behind the same, for not just the ‘porn queen’ and the website that seems to benefit from the extensive coverage of the issue but also Lebanon, the West, and the porn industry as a whole.

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Who is Mia Khalifa?

Mia Khalifa is a 21-year-old Lebanese-American, who moved to the US from Beirut with her parents when she was 10 years old. She has a bachelors degree in history from the University of Texas at El Paso, and entered the adult film industry this past October. Apparently, she was approached by a customer who asked her if she ever wanted to be in pornography.

Mia Khalifa was a ‘nobody’ in the porn industry until the hijab video appeared on Pornhub. She had starred in a measly twelve porn movies until then and as averred earlier, was conspicuous on the porn scene by her absence. When Bang Bros produced the ‘hijab’ video, Pornhub immediately tweeted about Mia taking the crown from Lisa Ann. Not only is the difference between the number of videos Mia (12) and Lisa (499) have starred in startling, but the release of the video also brought in an avalanche of media attention owing to the inherently ‘controversial’ nature of the video itself, which brings me to my next argument.

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What is all the fuss about?

We’ve hardly seen any tabloid covering the issue without referring to Mia’s Lebanese heritage. Given that the political implications of releasing a video showing a Lebanese-born woman performing sexual acts with the hijab on would have been blatant to the production house as well as to the woman who originally hails from the region, the video was released without as much as a second thought and achieved its purposive result. Not only did it spread like wildfire, but brought Mia Khalifa and Pornhub to the centre of the world stage. There isn’t anything surprising about the outrage that has come Mia’s way from fellow Lebanese and other angry Arabs and Muslims. The cultural taboo surrounding female sexuality and its expression isn’t quite news in a rigid patriarchal ethos such as that of the Middle East.

What exactly is happening in the video?

mia khalifa wearing the hijab in the controversial video

Mia Khalifa wearing the hijab in the controversial video

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The video seems to be a clear example of the ‘white’ fantasy of ‘conquering’ the exotic brown woman, whose hijab defines her explicit Muslim-ness. A Muslim man would never engage in a sexual act with a woman with a hijab on. Mira Abouelezz at Muslim Girl concurs and asserts that the erotic fantasy from which Mia benefits and by extension, so does Pornhub, is the ultimate rendition of exerting power over a seemingly helpless, powerless, Muslim brown woman who is denied any sort of agency or choice. And this is precisely the paradoxical nature of the equation that seems to be at work within the hermeneutics of the case. Whilst the obvious and rather regressive backlash from the Middle East is being countered by ‘liberal’ arguments in favor of Mia and the act she engages in, as evinced by the statement issued by British-Lebanese author Nasri Atallah,

The moral indignation […] is wrong for two reasons. First and foremost, as a woman, she is free to do as she pleases with her body. As a sentient human being with agency, who lives halfway across the world, she is in charge of her own life and owes absolutely nothing to the country where she happened to be born.

the paradoxical nature of choosing to exercise one’s volition to portray something that effectively deflates the very essence of ‘agency’ of the free individual is baffling. Mia’s own defense of the video where she states that

The scenes containing a hijabi are satirical. There are Hollywood movies that depict Muslims in a much worse manner than any scene [the company who made the video] could produce.

doesn’t help to elevate the other side of the argument either. Of course, we agree that one does not have a choice in deciding to be born somewhere and as such, Mia’s statement about any ‘disgrace’ that she might have brought upon her parents or country seems to be legit. But given that the politico-religious explosive quotient of such an act was blatant before, during, and after the shoot, we cannot help but wonder about it being a definite stroke of brilliantly-calculated buzz-blast.

An homage to Mia Khalifa

Given such immense ‘buzz’ surrounding the whole ‘Mia and her hijab’ controversy, it isn’t surprising that the ‘popularity’ of the porn star has skyrocketed. Whilst she is battling the apparently ludicrous tweets that are ‘damning her to Hell’ with witty quips like ‘I’ve been meaning to get a little tan recently,’ the popular electro-pop duo Timeflies have written and produced a song about her.

Also, pertinent to the whole discussion is the seemingly morphed agenda that Pornhub might have been behind the whole controversy. In bringing the discussion about ‘porn’ into the mainstream by discussing sexuality and the choices therein, it has managed not only to turn an obscure figure from the industry into an overnight success but managed to dodge all the advertising blocks of the industry and garner a hithertofore unprecedented rise in site traffic and tweets.

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Ergo, there remains little doubt about the calculation that went behind this surefire popularity-semtex-grenade that was dropped over the Internet to have it writhe under its effects for a long time and yet, at the same time one cannot help but sigh at the unnecessary initiation of barb-flux that carry deep cultural and racial subtexts. Attacks on a woman who comes out in the open and owns her sexuality are still inevitable in our society but coalescing the realms of politics and religion with the ethico-moral implications of a discussion about female sexuality was rather uncalled for.

And don’t get me wrong – interweaving these strands that inevitably produce a seemingly intricate pattern on the social fabric in the Middle East as well as elsewhere for a critical dialogue is both necessary and encouraged, but the mode chosen by Bang Bros, Pornhub, and of course, Mia herself, doesn’t quite seem to have ‘social change’ written over it!

Do you think this was all a cleverly engineered marketing ploy after looking at the facts above? Tell us!

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Mia Khalifa burst onto the media with her controversial hijab video. But was it just an attention-grabbing stunt or an expression of freedom?
Sejal Parikh

Sejal Parikh

"I'm a hurricane of words but YOU can choose the damage I do to you..."