Ankara - Responding to apparent pent-up demand for tacky bachelorette parties, 38-year-old Turkish entrepreneur Haluk Murat Demirel has opened the country’s first halaal (permissible in Islam) sex shop online.
It’s not the first such enterprise in the world - successful predecessors can be found in such varied locales as Bahrain, the Netherlands and Atlanta - but the existence of such a market still raises some interesting questions.
For instance, what makes a sex shop halaal? And what’s behind their spread?
According to Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, the trend is, if anything, reflective of the adaptive qualities of capitalism – not any trend in the Muslim world, where items like herbal aphrodisiacs have been commonplace but under the radar for centuries. “Muslim countries have all of these, but they don’t advertise them,” he said. “It all goes back to the monetisation of religion.”
But if halaal sex shop owners are motivated by profit, Islam itself has laid the groundwork for the business opportunity.
While rigid rules govern pre-marital sexual relations in Muslim culture, the Qur’an and hadith (a record of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) make clear that sex within the confines of marriage is not purely for procreation, as it is in some Christian denominations. Muhammad told men not to leave their wives for more than six months so as to avoid sexual neglect, and there are even some well-known references to foreplay in the hadith.
Yusuf said: “It’s not a prudish culture… but decorum is still very important.” For married Muslim couples, specific etiquette governs proper sexual relations, separating haram (forbidden) from halaal.
“Online sex shops usually have pornographic pictures, which makes Muslims uncomfortable,” Demirel, the Turkish shop owner, said. “We don’t sell vibrators, for example, because they are not approved by Islam.”
According to Yusuf, there is some disagreement over the degree to which masturbation - and related sex toys - is prohibited. “Some scholars say it’s forbidden, others say it’s discouraged,” he said. “Those who say it’s discouraged say it’s only to prevent fornication, or for relief.”
A section in the Qur’an says the “believers” are those “who protect their sexual organs except from their spouse… Whoever seeks more beyond that (in sexual gratification), then they are the transgressors.”
Vibrators and similar toys also don’t make it past an Islamic prohibition on the insertion of foreign objects into the body, according to Yusuf.
Abdelaziz Aouragh, the owner of a Dutch halaal sex shop called El Asira, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010: “There have been a lot of fatwas (Islamic rulings) concerning… (sex toys)… so it’s very clear that they are not permissible.” At Aouragh’s online boutique, there are even separate places for men and women to log in.
Halaal sex shops also can’t display pornographic imagery, since such images expose a person’s awrah, the Arabic word for areas forbidden from the public eye. According to Yusuf, women are not allowed to see the region stretching from the navel to the knees on another woman, and men are permitted to see only a woman’s face and hands. Although Turkey is the only Muslim country where porn is technically legal, huge black markets dedicated to it run through Muslim countries with stringent anti-porn policies, with Pakistan leading the entire world in porn-related search in a recent Google analysis.
Perhaps the most straightforward aspect of a halaal sex shop is that they supply only halaal-certified massage oils, lubricants and other such items. Halaal items using animal byproducts, for instance, cannot include pork and must come from animals killed according to Islamic rules.
As Yusuf pointed out, there’s hardly anything revolutionary about products like aphrodisiacs in the Muslim world, and there has even been some coverage of the hush-hush parties in Muslim countries where sex toys can be bought and sold as casually as plastic containers at a Tupperware party.
And for now, Demirel seems content with the “unexpected popularity” of his website (and the particularly unexpected demand for women’s products), which attracted 33 000 visitors on Sunday alone.