Meet Mia Khalifa, the Lebanese Porn Star Who Sparked a National Controversy

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Mia Khalifa Mia Khalifa

By most metrics, 21-year-old Mia Khalifa (not her real name) is doing pretty well for herself. She's educated, has a job that pays well and is successful in her field.

She's a daughter anyone could be proud of. Except Khalifa’s parents aren’t proud of her. They’re embarrassed, she says, because her job, which pays well enough to support her at the age of 21, is in porn. And Khalifa is not just any porn star—she was recently ranked the most popular actress on Pornhub.com, the 71st most-visited website in the world, according to the web traffic analytics firm Alexa (for comparison, cnn.com ranks 73rd and nytimes.com ranks 97th). On average, every day, millions of people around the world see Khalifa’s face—and other parts of her, as well.

Born in Beirut, her parents moved to Montgomery County in Maryland when she was around 10 years old. She has a B.A. in history from the University of Texas at El Paso. Based in Miami, she has her own place at a time when one in four people her age live with their parents (who also live with their parents).

For Khalifa's Lebanese immigrant parents, pornography is not an acceptable way to make a living. And in recent weeks, the debate over her career choice has expanded beyond a family disagreement to a national conversation in Lebanon about the roles of pornography and the Internet.

By her own admission, Khalifa isn’t very interested in Lebanese politics. “I don’t want us to be bullied by Syria or Israel, but I’m pretty indifferent towards it,” she said in an interview with Newsweek. But she isn’t shy about repping her Lebanese heritage on social media, either. On her left arm is a tattoo of the opening lines of Lebanese national anthem: كلنـا للوطـن للعـلى للعـلم (translation: All of us! For our Country, for our Flag and Glory!). On her right wrist is a tattoo of the Lebanese Forces Cross, the symbol of a Lebanese conservative Christian political party opposed to the Syrian Bashar Assad regime. Her father is a Lebanese Forces supporter, she says. She got the cross on her wrist two years ago, after the October 2012 Beirut bombing, in support of her father, “to show him, 'I’m on your side.'"

Both tattoos have generated controversy in Lebanon. Her critics say she’s shaming her country by appearing in porn with the Lebanese national anthem tattooed on her body, she says. “They’re embarrassed I’m ‘claiming’ them—as if I had a choice. I was born there.”

Lebanon, a country of just under 5 million, is one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East and has the most religious diversity of any nation in the region. But it spent the years from 1975 to 1990 locked in a bloody civil war, the aftershocks of which are reflected in the polarized political landscape of today. In recent years it has been plagued by political deadlock, such as when it spent 10 months in 2013 and 2014 without a government because its conservative and liberal coalitions could not come to an agreement.

Khalifa's conservative parents, meanwhile, have denounced her to the Lebanese media, she says. “No one in my family is speaking to me,” Khalifa says. She describes her parents as “extremely strict, overbearing, and very conservative—they assimilated to American culture by latching on to the Republican party.”

Few parents are happy to learn their child has elected to pursue a career in pornography. Most come around after a few weeks, Khalifa says. But what happens when your career becomes the subject of national debate? “It's blown up on such a huge scale," she says, attracting coverage in Lebanon and in Lebanese news channels in the U.S. "Everybody from my second cousins to family friends to my parents’ friends know…it’s not something that’s going to be forgiven.”

Khalifa says she feels guilty that her family has been caught up in the controversy. “I’ve dragged their name through the mud,” she says. "I feel guilty for dragging them into this and having all their friends know now that it’s on Lebanese media. But that was never my intention.”

Various pundits and commentators have latched onto Khalifa as a talking point in the ongoing debate over pornography and the Internet in Lebanon. According to the Lebanese Examiner, several Beirut-based newspapers printed unfavorable articles about Khalifa. She responded on Twitter.

Others, like British-Lebanese author Nasri Atallah, came to her defense. “The moral indignation about Mia Khalifa, presumably the first Lebanese porn star, is wrong for two reasons,” he wrote on Facebook. “First and foremost, as a woman, she is free to do as she pleases with her body. Secondly, 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. There is this odd perception that being Lebanese is a vocation and a duty first and that your personal life comes second.”

Lebanon’s Internet, while slow (only Beirut has 4G), is generally not restricted, according to a 2014 report by the international watchdog organization Freedom House. But that may be changing. In September, the country’s Telecommunications Ministry ordered Internet service providers to block access to six pornographic websites for reasons of “societal decency.” Khalifa suspects the new, intense focus on her may be related. “I think that’s why they’re latching on to me. They’re using me as a tool,” she says.

Most of the hatred Khalifa gets on social media comes from Lebanese men who have seen her movies, she says. Death threats are not uncommon.

Conversely, most of the support that comes her way on social media comes from Egypt, she says.

Khalifa says she doesn’t plan on staying in porn forever: “It’s not something I’d make a career out of, but I’ll ride it out 'til I can’t do it anymore.” Until then, she just wishes the media would leave her family alone. Asked if her career was worth losing her family, she said she wasn't sure. “I can’t say it’s worth it,” she says. “But I can’t self-pity, because I consciously made this decision myself.”

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