- By Katelyn FossettKatelyn Fossett is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. A native of Kentucky, she has previously written for the Inter Press Service and Washington Monthly. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.
Responding to apparent pent-up demand for tacky bachelorette parties, the 38-year old Turkish entrepreneur Haluk Murat Demirel has opened the country’s first halal (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, Ga. — but the existence of such a market still raises some interesting questions. For instance, what makes a sex shop halal? And what’s behind their spread?
According to Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., 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 told Foreign Policy by phone. "It all goes back to the monetization of religion."
But if halal 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 Quran and hadith (a record of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) 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. As Yusuf explains, "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 halal.
"Online sex shops usually have pornographic pictures, which makes Muslims uncomfortable," Demirel, the Turkish shop owner, told Reuters. "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, other says 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 Quran, widely understood to ban masturbation, says that 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. He told FP that even enemas are discouraged.
Abdelaziz Aouragh, the owner of a Dutch halal 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. I would sell them if it was permissible but it’s not." At Aouragh’s online boutique, there are even separate places for men and women to log in, in keeping with the Islamic tradition of purdah, or sex segregation.
Halal 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 Hamza 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 halal sex shop is that they supply only halal-certified massage oils, lubricants, and other such items. Halal items using animal byproducts, for instance, cannot include pork and must come from animals killed according to Islamic rules. According to Hamza Yusuf, condoms made with pig fat, for instance, would be haram.
Of course, opening sex shops in some of the world’s most sexually conservative environments is not without obstacles. Khadija Ahmed, the female owner of one erotic boutique in Bahrain, told Reuters in 2010 that a customs officer refused to clear some of her shipments of vibration rings.
In some ways, the opening of Turkey’s first sex shop reflects the paradoxical changes taking place in Turkish government and society. On the one hand, Turkey is often characterized as a stronghold of secularism in the Middle East and recognized for its imperfect but noteworthy efforts to embrace Western democratic ideals, especially in order to advance its bid to join the European Union. But at the same time, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who graduated from a clerical school and belongs to the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, has stoked debate about the government’s "hidden agenda" to Islamize the secular country by introducing measures like alcohol restrictions and making comments about raising "religious youth." The halal sex shop encapsulates this tension and the creative responses it has spawned.
But maybe that’s giving it too much credit. 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 site (and the particularly unexpected demand for women’s products), which attracted 33,000 visitors on Sunday alone. We already knew that sex sells, but add centuries-old religious traditions to the mix, and you have yourself a great business model.