Popular Adult Performer Ignites Heated Debate About Double Standards
Mia Khalifa had no interest in sparking a conversation about the role of women in the Middle East. But that's what happened when the 21-year-old was recently ranked the most popular adult performer on the website PornHub. The PornHub announcement didn't go over well in Khalifa's native Lebanon, where the newspapers bashed her, and men on social media—seemingly outraged by the combination of her Arabic tattoos and brazen sexuality—sent her death threats. Khalifa, who was raised as a Christian, told Newsweek that she's "indifferent" to Lebanese politics and feels guilty for shaming her family, but activists have come to her defense, citing her harassment as an example of Lebanon's unfair double standard for men and women.
One of those activists is British Lebanese author Nasri Atallah, a writer and an Al Jazeera commentator who has worked with the United Nations on the Arab Human Development Report. "The Lebanese proclivity towards double standards and instant moral indignation is staggering," he wrote on his Facebook page earlier this week. He's referring to the hateful misogyny aimed at Khalifa by men with "the sudden awareness that a woman of Lebanese origins enjoys sex and has chosen to make a profession of acting in pornographic films."
According to Atallah, the moral indignation is totally misplaced for two reasons: For one, Khalifa, who lives in Miami and does contract work for the controversial porn production company Bang Bros, owes nothing to the country where she was born, and two—perhaps more important—she's free to do whatever she pleases with her own body. While Lebanese media is highly sexualized, Atallah writes, there's a huge double standard when a woman is simultaneously in control of her own sexuality, her own image, and her own career.
Brazzers, a massive porn production company whose films have featured Khalifa, was "co-founded by a Lebanese guy living in Montreal, who went to Concordia, a university every Lebanese mom is proud to boast her son went to," Atallah concludes, raising the question, "Why aren't you angry at him?"
Lebanese-born, London-based actor and singer Juliana Yazbeck echoes those sentiments, writing for the website Now that sexism in Lebanon, a small Arab nation with a history of violence against women, was so rampant that it forced her to leave the country. "I spent what feels like 70 percent of my energy fighting against sexism, especially intellectual sexism," she acknowledged in the op-ed on Monday while lamenting that the issue was brought to the forefront because of a porn star. "Sexism in the workplace, sexism in social situations, sexism on the street...these are all very real," she wrote.
Khalifa had a fairly typical all-American upbringing. According to Newsweek, the brunet, who usually sports nerdy black square-rimmed glasses, was raised in Maryland and studied history at the University of Texas at El Paso before moving to Florida to pursue a career in the adult film industry. Her Twitter bio states that she's the unofficial mascot of the Florida State Seminoles and a porn star in the off-season. So why are conservative critics in Lebanon up in arms over her all-American lifestyle?
"They're embarrassed I'm 'claiming' them—as if I had a choice. I was born there," Khalifa told Newsweek. Her detractors view her Arabic tattoos and the fact that she wore a hijab in one of her videos as disgraceful to her heritage. The Lebanese national anthem is inked on her arm, and the Lebanese Forces Cross, a symbol of one of the nation's conservative Christian political parties, covers her wrist. She said she got the latter to show allegiance to her father, a Lebanese Forces supporter, after the Beirut bombing of October 2012.
The backlash comes just months after Lebanon's Telecommunications Ministry decided to prohibit access to a handful of pornographic websites, citing complaints from families concerned about porn's impact on societal decency, according to Newsweek. "I think that's why they're latching on to me," said Khalifa. "They're using me as a tool [for censorship]."