All photos by Leah James

Meet the Muslim Ex-Porn Star Stripping for Women's Rights

Nadia Ali incited an international scandal after performing in porn while wearing a hijab. We caught up with her at her exotic dancing debut in New York City to find out why the 24-year-old activist is more committed to women's liberation now than ever.

|
May 6 2016, 6:49pm

All photos by Leah James

Thursday night's headliner at the HeadQuarters Gentlemen's Club in New York City was a 24-year-old Pakistani-American porn star named Nadia Ali. Most of the scene was typical: Bare-breasted dancers drew their hips in slow circles under colorful lights; strippers in glitzy string bikinis lowered their asses to the laps of men seated in dark velvet arm chairs. There was a stage in front of a two-way mirrored wall. To the left was a DJ booth. Then, to the right, was Ali. She was seated alone on a long, plush sofa behind a velvet rope, wearing a custom, skin-tight, low-cut red crop top, thong, and veil.

Being Muslim in the adult entertainment industry is controversial in itself, but Ali's choice to perform in traditional garb for women in Islamic cultures is, to many, an atrocity. The young star made headlines in February after critics from around the world levied death threats and other histrionic condemnations at her. "They have said, 'I'm going to kill you,' and 'I'm going to take your body to your mother'," she told me. Ali's sexuality is seen by many as an offense against God, somehow worse than the threat of murdering her. "I don't get any death threats anymore," she said, adding that now her dissenters tell her she's simply going to hell and urge her to find "the right path." And it's not just Muslim people who have taken issue with Ali; she says people from other religions and ethnicities have targeted her, too.

When we spoke on Thursday evening at the club, Ali told me she's no longer making pornography. "My calling is something different," she said, speaking over the blaring music. "It was a great experience being in porn," she said, but she's ready to move on, focusing now on being a businesswoman and an advocate for women's rights. Ali is especially interested in educating young Muslim girls and women about sexist injustice in the Middle East, to counter what she sees as patriarchal Muslim culture.

Ali told me that women's sexuality is oppressed in Pakistan in many ways. She says there is a culture of male dominance that has stripped women of their rights in relationships. "In Islamic rule, if your husband wants to have sex with you, you can't say no to him," she said. "I just feel, like, what about women?"

Essentially, Ali argued, the ideal partner for men in Pakistan is a sexually inexperienced woman who men don't feel fulfilled by, so they seek out other women on lower social rungs to satisfy their sexual desires."There are a lot of men out there that get the [ideal] bride they want, but they end up cheating on her with a street hooker because they're cowards," she said. "They don't want to be real leaders, to lead their women in the bedroom."

"Women should not be oppressed in other countries," Ali continued. "In MIddle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. Also, a girl recently got killed in my country because she helped someone run away to get married. There are women getting killed for having education and creating education for women. They're getting killed for that. If they're dying for the simplest shit, I might as well get banned for the most extreme."

In working in the sex industry, Ali wants to show that Muslim women are sexual beings, too. "I take my faith and my culture with me," she said. "Your faith has nothing to do with what you do for work." In some of her films, she very intentionally wears a hijab.

"Wearing the hijab and fucking on camera is showing it's OK—it's the norm," she said. She says that Pakistan interpreted this as an offense to the hijab itself, as if she rejects it, though Ali says that was not her intent. "I was trying to open up a platform for Middle Eastern women to know that it's OK to masturbate, to be open to your sexuality."

Though wearing the hijab is perhaps her most showy political act, Ali told me that there are many other political scenes in her pornography as well. In one film, she speaks as a teacher to her class. Just before the male students gang bang her, they ask what her sex life is like as a Muslim woman. "Our husbands get to have sex with four other wives," she explains to the group. "So while he gets other pussy, you just have to be loyal to him?" one man asks incredulously. "Yeah, and I can't get other dicks," Ali answers.

"I am a practicing Muslim," Ali told me, the lights swirling overhead as more men milled through the club. "What you do is not who you are. I pray in the morning, and I'm an exotic dancer at night." She said that for many people, these two parts of herself cannot coexist, that they're indicative of her flawed character. She says they believe she's "trying to be pure, but then I'm the black sheep."

"It affects them more than it affects me," she said. "My belief has nothing to do with my sexuality. It's more of a conflict for the audience than it is for me."

The scorn of strangers is one thing, but how have Ali's family and friends responded to her career? "Just like anyone's parents' [reaction would be], my parents' first reaction was a heart attack," Ali said. But now they have become very supportive of the political message their daughter is sending. (Though, of course, they still don't want Ali to be in porn.)

As it neared one o'clock in the morning, dancers and men congregated around the room, and one older man took a seat firmly against the stage, staring forward, awaiting Ali's debut. She had never been a featured dancer before; this, she felt, was an historic moment. The music changed, and Ali was beckoned backstage—it was time to prepare for her performance.

"I lost a lot of my friends," she told me as she stood up from her seat. "When they found out I was viral in the media, they didn't want to be friends with me." Her friends, Ali says, told her that she didn't respect herself and they couldn't take her seriously, even going so far as to make remarks about her to her family.

"It felt upsetting," Ali said. "They felt as if I don't know myself. I do know myself, and I'm trying to relate to other women. I just want women to be as equal as men."