[Umit Bektas | U.S. News]

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, starting in 2013 with just eight dancers, 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 says.

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."

— Ozge Uraz

“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.

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”.

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