Muslim Adult Performer Nadia Ali On Reconciling Her Job With Her Religion

Produced by Jacki Huntington. Filmed by Jacki Huntington & Lauren Terp. Edited by Jacki Huntington & Raffi Asdourian.

It was the Donald Trump scene that told Nadia Ali it was time to quit porn. "After doing 20 scenes, I quit, because I realized that in some of the scenes, they were trying to make Middle Eastern people look bad," she tells Refinery29. "They offered me to do a scene where an all-American white guy dressed like Donald Trump is fucking a Muslim girl… I felt disrespected. That wasn’t going to be my 21st scene."
Ali wasn't new to ideological conflict at work. The 24-year-old Pakistani-American is a practicing Muslim, exotic dancer, and former escort and porn star, and if you think her career seems at odds with her religion, she gets that: She has struggled with apparent contradictions between the two herself. “Sure, I have conflicts between my faith and my day-to-day life,” she tells us. “But doesn’t everybody?”

Not everybody, however, has incited international controversy with her professional choices — in Ali's case, for wearing a hijab in her porn scenes, a move that both shot her to prominence in the adult entertainment industry and put her in the crosshairs of critics in the U.S. and abroad. Ali says that she is now "banned" from Pakistan, where her extended family lives. "Pakistan did not ban me because I did porn," she clarifies. "They banned me because I wore the scarf and their traditional dress in the adult scenes and performed in Islamic wear."

Ali knows her detractors find her choice of attire disrespectful, but this was never her intention. "From the Pakistani perspective, I’m basically anti-hijab and I’m disrespecting the Islamic headwear," she says. "But it wasn’t about that — it’s me being open with my sexuality. A Middle Eastern woman that doesn’t know how to get intimate with her husband or how to masturbate or whatever, she can watch my porn and be open with her sexuality, like, 'You’re not the only one.'"
Growing up, Ali often felt isolated. Originally from New Jersey, she is the first of her Pakistani family to have been born in the U.S., and expectations of modesty and chastity were impressed on her from a young age. Although she never wore a headscarf, "I grew up in a very strict Islamic family,” she says. “Coming from that community, it was really hard, because I felt like I was always an outcast... I felt like I was suppressed, like I wasn’t being myself."
Ali had never dreamed of doing sex work, but in 2013, when she was 21 years old — working in a San Francisco salon threading eyebrows and barely scraping by — a friend invited her to dance with her one night at a strip club. “I made like $500 and I was so proud of myself, like, ‘Oh my god, I’m never going to go back!’” Ali exclaims. “'I’m never going back to my old life.'"
Ali has been engaged in sex work since, although the types of work have varied. "I started off as a dancer, then I started escorting," or having sex with clients, she says, "and I kind of went on and off with dancing and escorting for a while up until 2014." That year, ready to make both more money and a bigger name for herself, Ali entered the porn world, where she was encouraged to wear a hijab in her scenes. "A lot of porn companies and adult companies would not shoot me and I would not get a lot of work if I did not wear the traditional Islamic, Middle Eastern wear," she says. "I would just be a regular brunette girl with brown eyes doing another porn scene, so what’s so special about me? What’s so different about me? Why should I be famous? Why should I be well-known?"

Wearing a hijab is one of the few taboos still left in porn, and in porn, taboo sells. Like Lebanese-American porn performer Mia Khalifa (who is not Muslim) before her, Ali attracted vitriol from across the internet — and world. She was criticized for performing in a hijab; the very tool she used to build a rabid fan base became a lightning rod for hate. "Every day, I get some type of tweet or some type of comment on my 'gram: 'I want to kill you,' 'I want to behead you and give it to your mother,' 'I want to behead your mother,' 'I want to rape your mother,' a lot of things," she says calmly. "I deal with it with kindness and I delete their message and I block them. That’s the most I can do."
In between her work in escorting and porn, Ali continued to pray two or three times a day, which she does to this day. "I am a practicing Muslim, so I kind of have an internal conflict sometimes," she admits. "One of the biggest main sins it’s hard to be forgiven for is adultery — having sex without marriage is a sin and doing it multiple times a day as an escort is one of the major sins that you will not be forgiven for, and I am fully aware of that, but yeah, I still pray." And while Ali views her career in adult entertainment as a means to an end — "People do certain things to get by for the time being so they can get to the next level of their life" — she also sees it, especially her work in porn, as an end in itself. "I feel like the porn industry helped me in so many ways," she says. "It brought me the attention that I needed, it opened [me] up to my sexuality, and I opened up as a person."

When the porn roles she was being offered grew too narrow for Ali late last year, though, she left to focus on photo shoots, video shoots, and dancing, which she loves. "I’m not a pole trickster," she explains. "I am a twerker, belly dancer, and a sensual seduction dancer." Ali no longer wears religious clothing in her performances, although her signature face veil still taps into clients' exoticist fantasies — and if you have a problem with it, she says, you can look the other way. "I feel like if it does bother other people and they have something to say about it, then they shouldn’t put their energy in looking at something that’s bothering to their eye," she shrugs. "If it bothers people, me dancing at the strip club, then don’t come to the club. If you don’t like my tweets or don’t like my press, then you don’t have to read it… This is how the universe works. You don’t want something in your life, you don’t come around it, it won’t come to you."
At Ali's New York City dancing debut at HeadQuarters Gentlemen's Club in early May, club owner "Big John," who identifies as Muslim, expressed admiration for Ali. "Her statement is that You're not gonna dictate to me what I do with my body and my life," he told us. "She's not putting a ceiling on what she can do in her life... She's doing what she wants to do."
Dancing as the headline act at strip clubs can be a lucrative gig for women in adult entertainment: "Feature dancing is a big part of porn stars’ careers now, because they don’t get paid as much as they used to six, seven years ago because there’s an influx of girls," Ali's publicist Lainie Speiser tells us. Ali's career in feature dancing, however, recently hit a snag. Several of her August bookings were cancelled by Florida clubs out of fear of backlash for featuring a Muslim performer in the wake of the Pulse nightclub attack, which killed 49 in Orlando, FL, in June and was carried out by a Muslim shooter.

"[A representative of the booking company] told me the clubs were worried about getting death threats," Speiser says. "He went as far to say that he was thinking of taking her off the website, even, because he was worried so much about the flak." She says that, as a result, Ali can't afford Speiser's services for now, but Speiser is optimistic: "We’re still in touch, and I’ve still hooked her up with interviews and stuff like that, because I know once she’s got her feet back on the ground financially, we’ll be working together again."

And while Ali believes there is more she can do in adult entertainment, she also has her sights set on life beyond it. "The porn industry, the companionship industry, or the dancing industry for me is a stepping stone to get in, do the dirt, make your fame, and then get out and go on to something bigger and better," she says. "I want to open up my own beauty bar, with my own beauty app... I’ve learned over the time that I’m better off working for myself. I am an entrepreneur."

And she is proud of the work she's done along the way. "It’s okay to be conservative and still have a sexual side, and I wanted to show that on camera," she says. "You being covered and you being a housewife or a house mom, you can still be okay to have an orgasm, being able to masturbate, being able to be horny — being able to seduce."

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