Meet Instagram’s Hijabi Pole Dancer
Neda is a 33-year-old hijabi nurse practitioner with a pole installed in her California living room. Here, in her sparkly grip pants, sometimes overlayed with an ethereal chiffon skirt, the LA-based Muslim woman of Iranian heritage practices and perfects pole moves like the Ballerina Spin, Remy Layback and Teddy, as well as positions like the No-Handed Cradle and No-Hands Cupid. Neda has more than 57K followers on her Instagram page, @hijabiluscious, where she posts humorous memes, witty responses to critics, snippets from her time in the studio and messages about her 2-year journey with pole. She talks to KETISH about embracing body autonomy, rejecting reductive stereotyping, celebrating self-care and pressing the “block” button on the haters.
Tell us about your journey becoming Instagram’s famous hijabi pole dancer.
When I came into pole, I had been a swimmer for a long time, and that helped me out with the discipline. But pole is a completely different muscle set. I first went to pole thinking that I was going to be perceived as a joke and I was totally prepared for that – I went in with my hijab on and I thought I'd be looked at weird, but everyone was really welcoming. The teacher was super body positive and really encouraging.
I learned all the central moves, and started to go more often and learn more about it. I respected that it is largely influenced by strippers, and I didn't see anything wrong with that; I have my own boundaries with what I’m going to be public with. I decided to go public when I started to see that there are aspects in pole that I felt comfortable sharing, and that involved a lot of my own progress with my upper body strength, the aerial aspects of it and the more acrobatic parts of it. So that’s when I started posting my first videos and doing spins and everything.
We found your platform extremely inspiring and empowering. Yet, some conservative critics might claim that being a hijabi pole dancer is contradictory. What would you say to them?
I mean, I'm not trying to prove that it's not contradictory – if you want to think it's contradictory, that's fine. This is not the first time that I've heard people say “oh, you’re wearing hijab, you shouldn't be doing this.” I get that s**t when I wear jeans, you know, what do you want me to do, wear a potato sack?
Pole is nowhere near the first time I’ve heard this, I’ve been policed in the mosque for what I wear for decades, I’ve had a chador thrown on me while I’m praying because my butt is too tight in my pants. So, saying ‘you can’t do pole and wear hijab,’ I’m just like, ‘um, well I am. You’re entitled to think that I shouldn’t be wearing my leggings when I’m wearing hijab and I shouldn’t be spinning around like I do, but that’s not going to change my decision.’ It’s just useless trying to justify your decisions. I mean honestly in the beginning of pole I was just like, ‘What? I'm not stripping, what's the problem?’ Things got a lot easier for me when I stopped trying to prove that and just respected that you can think what you want, but that’s not going to pay my bills and that’s not going to make me stronger, and I have a lot of people who support what I do.
Have you had a lot of negative backlash on social media?
Not so much now, but I did in the beginning, when my first video – a Christmas show, my first full performance – went viral. I posted it, and the next thing I knew, my video was being shared by some angry-looking dude in Egypt, I got backlash and hate mail, but I just blocked and deleted. You know, the black button is a beautiful thing! It was overwhelming at first, but that’s what helped me get noticed.
Are there misconceptions of pole being a solely “sexual” form of fitness?
There are different categories of pole, so if you don't want to do something more sensual that is fine. Not everybody feels comfortable doing stripper moves or more erotic moves, even in a women’s-only circle. We’ve got things like pole conditioning where it's a lot more focused on pulling yourself up the pole and climbing, and spin pole which is more focused on endurance. Pole is just another type of dance or gymnastics – yes it's erotic and sensual, and what we associate with strippers is a large part of it. But if that's not for you, there are a whole lot of other areas that can fit into what you want physically.
Some Muslim women might still practice pole for that sensual element, right?
If we didn’t have sexuality, we would not be reproducing. It’s a part of our lives and it’s just a part of who we are. I think it's unrealistic to think that everybody who wears hijab is like a nun or something.
What have you learned about your own body through pole?
It really helps me get in touch with my body autonomy. So much of pole is about safety and if you want to be safe, you have to be in touch with your limitations and with what you are feeling you can do in that moment. You really have to listen to your body.
There are some days where I can do it almost effortlessly and there's some where I can't even do half of it, and you have to learn to be forgiving of that and not internalize that as ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘What’s wrong with me.’ So, you kind of learn to allow your body to give consent to you, you know? We keep talking about consent between other people all the time, but do we learn how to listen to our body when it says, ‘I can't do this right now. I don't want to do this. Let's try something different.’ This helps me to avoid internalizing shame when I cannot do certain things, and instead learn how to be compassionate towards my body.
What does self-care mean to you?
Self-care means investing in myself. What I kind of had to get past was, in Persian culture, you save money left and right. Everything is deemed in terms of, ‘Do you really need that?’ ‘Do you really need to spend that?’ ‘Do you really need to get your eyebrows done or could you do it yourself?’ You have a lot of guilt around spending money. So, self-care means that I spend my money investing in myself and that means that I treat myself to private sessions, and to the stuff that I was told was a waste of money when I was growing up. And now I see that investing in myself is not a waste of money, having luxuries like private lessons is not a waste, because I see the changes in my body, and I see that pole is just more enjoyable when I learn the technicalities that can make moves a lot easier for me.
What is a common misconception about sex and women that you’ve observed as a nurse practitioner?
One thing I’ve noticed in my job is that a lot of the women who have any kind of sexual dysfunction, or even infertility issues, come in thinking something is wrong with them. And it’s often internalized patriarchy. I could have women that are coming in saying that they’ve been poked and prodded because they haven't been able to get pregnant for over a year. And no one's asked, ‘Well, did your partner ever get a sperm count?’ No – never occurred to anybody. Or, when people come to me asking about why it hurts when they have sex – they get a pelvic exam and everything could be totally normal, but no one's asking, ‘Well, is your man's game just weak? Is he going in trying to Jackhammer you?’ Because that's not normal. It’s assumed that if a woman is having pain in sex, then something’s wrong with her, but nobody’s questioning what her man is doing. It’s never considered that these things take two.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
I would probably say that I don't have to be considered useful all the time to be a good friend, and my value is not defined by how often I say “Yes.”
The best thing about being a woman is?
I think my favourite part of being a woman is empowering other women by example. Unfortunately, a lot of our struggle does happen because of the presence of other men and feeling like their opinion is more powerful than it is. My favourite thing about being a woman is seeing other people seeing me for the woman that I am, and giving themselves permission to be themselves.