Khadija Ahmed, a 32-year old veiled businesswoman, and Abdelaziz Aouragh, a 29-year old Amsterdam-born practicing Muslim of Moroccan heritage with the instincts of a Dutch trader, hardly fit the profile of purveyors of sex articles such as edible underwear, vibrating accoutrements, joy jellies, capsules that increase male performance, desire and pleasure, pills to heighten women’s’ desire, and cocoa butter, water and silicon-based lubricants.
Yet, in a community perceived as repressive of women and severely restrictive of intimate gender relations, Ahmed and Aouragh are pioneers of a controversial new line of business: the sale of sexual enhancement products to practicing Muslims. To be sure, they have no shortage of distracters. Conservatives denounce them as un-Islamic and some western suppliers shy away from them afraid of drawing Islamist wrath for being associated with them or concerned that adherence to Islamic law may imply links to terrorism. Yet, Dar Khadija (House of Khadija), Ahmed’s newly open sex shop in Bahrain, the first such outlet in the Arab world, and Aouragh’s online El Asira webshop the world’s first halal (religiously-endorsed) shop for sexual enhancement products, are booming successes.
El Asira was so popular from day one that Aouragh had to take the shop offline four days after its launch and move it to a new Internet service provider because his original California-based host GreenGeeks was unable to accommodate the traffic volume it generated – 60,000 hits a day. GreenGeeks allegedly used the traffic volume as way to disassociate itself from El Asira once it realized that the site operated in accordance with Islamic law. “We do not tolerate abusers of our terms of service and we definitely do not accept customers who have harmed our service, then continue to disregard the violations and procedures of our business. With that being said, your account will be terminated and you will no longer be a customer of GreenGeeks and will have to find another web hosting provider,” GreenGeek’s Karl Davids told El Asira in a March 30 email. GeenGeeks CEO Trey Gardner declined to comment on the nature of the alleged abuse and disregard.
El Asira – Arabic for The Society – and Dar Khadija are but one indication that many young Muslims are determined to strike their own balance between how they structure their private lives and adhere to a faith whose sexual morals historically have been interpreted by conservatives. While Ahmed and Aouragh err on the side of caution relying on conservative interpretations by Saudi religious authorities, a host of contemporary Muslim artists, many of them women, have recently opted to paint naked models despite widespread belief by Muslims that the Koran bans nudity as well as life-like portraits of human beings. “We are promoting this dialogue,” Aouragh says, asserts at the same time that Muslim artists who portray nudity lack a correct understanding of Islam.
Ahmed says a desire to reduce rising divorce rates and the need for extra marital affairs is at the core of her business. “It’s not a sex shop in the Western sense, but a place to help married couples, and only married couples, enjoy sex to the full…. Why do married men and women go looking for love elsewhere? Because of the routine that couples fall into,” she says. Practitioners of S&M may find little that excites them at Dar Khadija, but there is plenty of kinky lingerie and suggestive bedroom accessories as well women’s clothes ranging from tight-fitted jeans to embroidered Arabic gowns. Ahmed says clients love her shop and one admitted that his visit had stopped him from filing for divorce. Ahmed’s business benefits from being located in Bahrain, one of the more liberal Gulf states and a popular weekend destination for Saudis seeking relief from a far more restrictive environment at home.
El Asira’s homepage (www.elasira.eu) unlike traditional sites that sell sexual enhancement products, reflects Aouragh’s conservatism. There are no seductive pictures of attractive women or enticing, suggestive texts. Instead, its homepage is a sober black and grey street with a dividing line in the middle that grants men and women separate entry – women on the left, men on the right.
Once inside, clients can browse in Dutch, Arabic or English through more than a dozen products, mainly massage oils, lubricants and tablets that claim to act as aphrodisiacs. Illustrations are restricted to boxes, tablets, tubes and bottles, mostly in pink or blue with the brand’s logo, a black flame.
Conspicuously absent are dildos, vibrators and any type of pornography. All ingredients are halal, permissible under Islamic law, which means largely free of animals fats, Aouragh says. Aouragh’s main supplier is a Swedish provider of herb-based, biological products that do not sport pictures of naked people or foul language.
Before launching El Asira, Aouragh sought religious blessing from a Dutch imam, who in turn introduced him to a sheikh from Saudi Arabia, home to one of Islam’s most puritan interpretations of Islam. “You’re old news. Such products are already being sold in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and so is lingerie,” the unidentified sheikh told Aouragh in a phone conversation when asked whether Islamic law permitted the sale of sexual enhancement products.
Dutch imam, Boularia Houari, serves as Aouragh’s main Shari’a advisor. A 35-year-old, primarily Arabic speaking glass fiber cable technician, Houari teaches the Koran, preaches at various Dutch mosques and counsels married members of his community on matters sexual. Key elements of his counseling include the principle that intimate relations between the sexes are only allowed within a marriage; Viagra is permitted but natural stimulants such as poppy seed oil and honey are more Islamic and condoms are preferable to coitus interruptus to ensure that a woman has an orgasm and does not resort to vibrators or masturbation.
Like Ahmed, Aouragh says his target audience are married couples, Muslim and non-Muslim, who are looking for an online shop in line with their religious sensitivities “that does not focus on pornography and the extravagant side of erotica.” But Aouragh concedes that he has no control over who enters his site and the Riyadh-based sheikh declared he could not be held responsible for who his customers may be and what they may do with his products. An unmarried man, for example, who purchases stimulating pills obviously for an extra-marital affair or a married couple that might be having sex during the wife’s menstruation are sinners rather than their vendor, the sheikh said. His views are echoed by Ahmed who categorically states that “perversions are none of my business.”
Ahmed may have beat Aouragh to the mark with the opening of her physical shop, but Aouragh plans to expand his empire with a shop of his own in the Gulf, as well as lingerie and a jewelry line. “The image of women in the kitchen, submissive, dressed in a burkah isn’t true. There is a lot of love. Islam has a lot of respect for women. Our shop puts the woman at the centre of things,” Aouragh says.
While earning money and building an empire, Aouragh hopes that his business will contribute to cross-cultural understanding. “Everybody is talking about Islam in a negative way. I am trying to get something positive out of the dark,” he says. The El Asira website adds: “Muslims have to deal with stereotypical prejudices by some non-Muslims on the topic of sexuality within the Islam. We want to share with other Muslims in a positive way our contribution to a broader view of sexuality and eroticism within the Muslim community for Muslims themselves, as for others.”