In Istanbul’s busy Kadikoy district, a group of women attend a pole dancing class, working out in a gym which many see as a refuge in an increasingly conservative Muslim city.
The WOW studio is one of three in Istanbul, which started in 2013 with just eight dancers and now runs courses for more than 1,000 women.
Its popularity is part of a global fitness trend, but in a country ruled by President Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party, the pole dancing classes also help women escape social or religious constraints, instructor Ozge Uraz said.
The dancers "are seeking a secure and secluded atmosphere where they can display their female energies,” Uraz said, adding that her dance studio was a “freedom zone... decontaminated from male existence.”
Thirty-year-old social media consultant Zeynep said pole dancing made her feel free. She said its popularity was partly a reaction to changes in Turkish society.
“On one side, conservatism is rising but on the other side, a new generation is rising, living for herself not for others,” she told Reuters.
College graduate Tugba, 27, who wears a Muslim headscarf, has told only her husband and a few close friends that she does pole dancing.
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Despite its links to burlesque shows and strip clubs, Tugba says pole dancing does not contradict her religious beliefs “because no man sees me when I’m dancing, and I’m doing this only for myself.”
Political scientist Alev Ozkazanc says pole dancing’s popularity should be no surprise in a Muslim country, particularly one like Turkey where strong secular and religious traditions co-exist.
“The dance can be seen as a means of resistance to the duress applied on the female body and women’s liberties,” she said.
Another dance instructor noted that not all the opposition comes from the religious conservatives.
“There are, of course, critics but the ones directly made to me are not from conservatives,” Instructor Sevinc Gurmen Hall said. “The feminists and highly educated people criticize me. They think pole dance is a way of commoditizing women.”
Nonetheless, the criticism appears unlikely to deter many of the dancers. “I feel liberated here, as I cannot when I’m out on the street,” Zeynep said. “Seeing so many women here gives me hope for the future.”