Waterproof vibrators; kegel balls; gelatin-free lube that complies with Sharia law. Chances are, you're only going to find two of the three at your average sex shop. But now you can at the UK's very first online adult emporium for Muslims, Halal Adult Store.
The brainchild of Nottingham, UK-based businessman Hamed Zeb, 30, customers can pick from 12 products, including a silicone finger massager and a G-spot wand. The only catch? It's got to be in line with Islamic law, so don't expect bacon-flavored lubricant anytime soon.
"I really believe Muslim women are alienated from traditional sex shops," Zeb says. "The images of nudity, particularly among the more traditional kind—and even the newer generation—can put them off."
According to him, the "pornographic focus" of mainstream British sex shops can intimidate Muslim customers, particularly women—which means that Halal Adult Store is reaching out to an untapped audience. It offers a nudity-free buying experience with no explicitly X-rated tell-tale features, meaning that you could add a cock ring to your shopping basket during your lunch break if it takes your fancy.
Since its opening in December, it has served hundreds of customers who spend an average of £40 in the store. Zeb says that his clientele ranges from couples going through a rough patch to newlyweds.
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But is Halal Adult Store enough to tackle the taboo—or at least encourage an open dialogue —in a community that, to outsiders, appears notoriously covert about their sex lives? Zeb is confident that it can. "My shop can be an ice breaker. There's nothing quite like it in the UK," he tells me. "I've picked certain products which can be conversation starters. If one person is talking about it positively, that's enough."
But for many of the Muslim women I interviewed for this piece—particularly those wear the hijab like 27-year-old Zubeda*—it's not just sexually explicit shop fronts in the high street that can make them uncomfortable. It's simply that they don't feel welcome.
"I can't help but feel that I'm almost 'intruding' on their idea of who a sexually adventurous woman is. Just because I dress modestly doesn't mean I don't want—or enjoy—sex."
Contrary to the often insidious and one-dimensional view of Muslim women as devout and even unempowered in mainstream media, it's unusual—and refreshing—to hear Muslim women like Zubeda celebrate their sexuality. Islamic scripture (in particular the Qur'anic chapter of Al-Baqarah) has long emphasized women's right to sexual pleasure. In Muslim-majority countries, it's not uncommon for wives to seek to divorce their husbands if they can't satisfy them sexually.
Even so, a burka-clad woman weighing up butt plugs in a mall sex shop would still be an unusual sight. With Halal Adult Store's discreet packaging, it's little wonder Zeb's store has been swamped with visitors when the site offers a safe—even invisible—space for Muslim women to find something to cater for their needs. (Which makes sense, given that his top seller is the rabbit vibrator.) Zeb insists that Muslim women, just like in any other religion, "enjoy sex and want it to be more adventurous. My store allows women to embrace this."
I ask Zeb whether he'd welcome single Muslim women, when Islamic tradition encourages intimacy only for married couples and his products are intended to prolong marriage. "When I first set up the website, I received 60 percent business from them."
The trend for halal sex shops doesn't appear to be disappearing anytime soon. Countries such as Turkey are home to many halal sex shops, both offline and online. Entrepreneur Haluk Murat Demirel launched the country's first online sex shop in 2013, telling the BBC: "Despite what outsiders believe, sexuality is a normal human necessity in Islam."
Shelina Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf, agrees. "The taboos are lifting. In recent years, we've started to see young Muslims attempting to reclaim discussions about sexuality as something natural, healthy and not to be ashamed of, as long as practiced within the boundaries of permitted relationships."
Meanwhile, in Europe, Dutch Muslim Abdelaziz Aouragh founded the world's largest erotic retailer, El Asira, which attracted 70,000 hits to the site in its first four days, causing the website to temporarily shut down—though with a range of sensual candles and creams, it seems much tamer in comparison to Zeb's store.
Just putting the label 'halal' fuels this idea that Muslims are different from everyone else. Why do they need their own sex shop?
That's not to say all Muslims have entirely welcomed Zeb's shop with open arms. While he claims his products are permissible by Islamic law, Islamic forums have long been divided whether sex toys can ever truly be halal.
One camp cites Qur'anic references, which state that sexual pleasure can only come from their partner and thus use of sex toys fall outside of what is considered permissible. Another school of thought claims that if gelatin-free lubricant like Zeb's merely enhance sexual pleasure rather than substitute it, then surely this should be celebrated?
Some ex-Muslims and Muslims, however, are united in voicing their concerns that this could polarize the already fragile relationship between Muslims and the general population.
Eiynah, a Pakistani ex-Muslim blogger, tells Broadly: "Just putting the label 'halal' fuels this idea that Muslims are different from everyone else. Why do they need their own sex shop? In this climate of heightened anti-Muslim bigotry, I don't think it's wise for Muslims to insist that they are separate from the rest of the world, even with the sex toys they use."
Fozia*, a 30-year-old Muslim who works in the charity sector, agrees. "I'm not sure why there needs to be separate Muslim sex shops. Some Muslim women are already purchasing items from existing online mainstream services to enhance their sex life."
Zeb himself remains unfazed by the criticism, with his sights set high for a global reach: "It's time for a change [in people's assumptions about sex and Islam] and hopefully this will be the year Muslims embrace sex and not shun it [sic] into the underground."
* Names have been changed