It’s no surprise that news of a “sharia-compliant sex shop” opening in Islam’s holiest city grabbed headlines around the world a couple of months ago.
Everything about the story scandalized: from bedroom accessories made to abide by a faith that’s seen as all doom and gloom to the very idea of selling sex at its most sacred site. There was one minor detail missing from the stories, however: the shop is unlikely to open anytime soon — and the reason for that isn’t what you might expect.
“I’m getting requests from all corners of the world who want to know about the story in Mecca, and I’m [telling reporters], ‘You don’t have your facts straight,” Abdelaziz Aouragh, who heads of El Asira, the company at the center of the controversy told ThinkProgress after several prominent newspapers carried the story.
The Dutch businessman and practicing Muslim found the attention even more bewildering because he sees no contradiction between Islamic teachings and sexual pleasure — or the sale of intimate products in Mecca. While he hasn’t made any real moves to do so yet, Aouragh does hope to one day sell his line of in the holy city. Reporters simply misconstrued the reality of the situation by relying on a mistranslation of an old interview he gave a year ago.
If Aouragh ever does open a Mecca location of El Asira, however, it wouldn’t be so out of place. Victoria’s Secret storefronts abound across Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom even even has its own popular brand of lingerie, Nayomi, which has several locations in Mecca.
Still, Aouragh understands why the story, though faulty, drew so much interest. He says that a lot of people — including many Muslims — don’t understand the role of sexual pleasure within Islam.
“There’s no contradiction,” he says, but Aouragh didn’t always feel that way.
For many Muslims, sexuality is coded in negatives. One major reason why Muslim women believe they are required to cover much of their bodies and their hair is to guard against untoward or unwanted sexual advances — and thus preserve their chastity. And while it is certainly not promoted by Islam, many Muslims who carry out female genital mutilation (FGM) believe that they are fulfilling a religious obligation, one meant to curb female sexual desire. In recent years, many Muslims have pushed back against the apparent censure of certain sexual experiences by “coming out” about them — even if they don’t fit into the traditional confines of Islamically permissible sex. Some have taken this one step further by advocating for a more inclusive understanding of sexuality that reflects Islam’s positive take on sex between married men and women but expands it to all consensual relationships.
Although he grew up as a Muslim, Aouragh says that he was “flabbergasted” when he began to read about how much importance Islam puts on sexual pleasure — and how frankly Muslim scholars discuss sexual practices and sexual intimacy — even some of the most conservative ones.
Sheikh Mohammad Nasir Ad-Din Albani, a prominent Salafi cleric, collected teachings of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad in a book detailing everything from what sexual acts a married couple can engage in while a woman is menstruating to a discussion of permissible sexual positions.
According to some, the Prophet even decried sex without foreplay as “cruel” and encouraged kissing and talking during intercourse to elevate it above a mere animal act. Perhaps more surprising, he is believed to have said that sex could be considered a form of charity. Islamic scholars have even engaged in detailed debates on the best methods to tend to pubic hair.
These robust discussions around sexual practices and sexual hygiene are often overlooked by many Muslims, however. Encouraging Muslims to engage with Islam’s teachings on sex was part of Aouragh’s mission when he established El Asira in 2010.
“El Asira does not only sell products to enhance your love life, but also provides a deeper meaning to sexuality, sensuality and even spirituality,” the company website notes.
But if Islam promotes sexual pleasure, it limits it at the same time. Sex is only permissible for married couples — and since most Muslims define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, the prohibitions expand to same-sex relationships.
It is my right to have sex and to experience pleasure.
“We say proudly that Islam is a sex-positive religion, but among husbands and wives. I want to be sex positive outside of marriage,” Mona Eltahawy, author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why The Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution, said in an interview at a New York City bookstore where her book is prominently displayed.
Eltahawy is an Egyptian Muslim and feminist, but she doesn’t identify as a Muslim feminist because she says her feminism is secular. For her, opening up about sex is essential to bringing women on to equal footing with men, and in ending the stigma against homosexuality.
“We have to talk about sex, [and] the politics of pleasure. It’s my right as an adult women to say I deserve pleasure,” she said emphatically. “I like sex. It is my right to have sex and to experience pleasure.”
Eltahawy knows firsthand the stigma associated with the sort of frank discussions she advocates. The first time she told fellow Muslim women about the fact that she — an unmarried Muslim woman — was no longer a virgin, she was floored by the response.
One woman, a fellow Egyptian, told her of a verse in the Qu’ran that says, “A fornicator does not marry except a [female] fornicator” — a reminder that Eltahawy hardly found encouraging.
“The other women were just shocked into silence,” she recalls. “Nobody offered their story. Nobody.”
That moment encapsulated just how pervasive the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy around sexual experiences is for unmarried Muslims — especially women. So much so that even as a 47-year-old woman, Eltahawy’s family would prefer she keep mum about her experiences.
“No one where we come from wants their daughter to have [her sexual experiences] in black and white,” but by writing about how she lost her virginity at the age of 29, Eltahawy has forced her parents to deal with the truth. She says her openness about sex been easy for them to accept, but she believes that in order to ignite a revolution, others will have to share their stories — and she can’t invite them to bare all without doing so herself.
In November 2011, Eltahawy was reporting on protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt when she was pulled aside by security forces who, she says, groped her breasts and attempted to put their hands down her pants before breaking her left arm and right hand. The experience pushed her to believe that Egypt didn’t just need a political revolution, but a sexual one as well.
“There are dictators all over,” she says adjusting the many bracelets that adorn her wrists. “And the one in the home is hardest [to topple].”
The social strata of honor and shame begin with the family, she says, pointing to stories of so many women who risked great personal injury to protest in Tahrir Square — but felt they had to lie to their families about doing so. That veil of secrecy doesn’t help anyone, Eltahawy says — least of all women.
“So far, what we’ve been taught about sex is that we have to wait for marriage. We are in deep denial that so many people are having sex outside of marriage,” she says. “When sex before marriage happens in that silence and in that taboo, who ends up being the most hurt? The people who are the weakest in our communities and they are women and girls.”
The way Eltahawy talks about disavowing the shame and secrecy around extramarital sex is reminiscent of how feminists a generation ago discussed the need to legalize abortion in order to bring it out of back alleys.
She’s not alone in believing the silence has done more harm than good — and while not all of them have been as open as Eltahawy, dozens of Muslim women shared their own stories about relationships and sexuality in a book called Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women.
The anthology opens with an essay by a young Pakistani-American woman who marries a man she’s met only once, much to the surprise of a high school friend she calls with the news of her wedding. Nine years in, however, Aisha C. Saeed was surprised by the relationship she developed within her arranged marriage.
“What I did not expect, however,” she writes, “what I completely underestimated, was that I would continue to fall more deeply in love with him as time went on.”
Nura Maznavi, who co-edited Love, InshAllah along with Ayesha Mattu, says the book came out of a desire to see the stories of Muslim women presented in a way that reflected their nuances of their experiences.
“What we were really coming up against…is this idea of the Muslim woman monolith that exists both inside of the community and outside of the community,” Maznavi tells ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “Outside of the community there’s this idea of women as repressed, oppressed, [and] lacking agency over our lives. Within the Muslim community there are these ideas of what a good Muslim girl looks like and acts like and what she wears. So we wanted to challenge these monolithic representations of Muslim women by telling our own stories on our own terms.”
That meant featuring stories that didn’t line up with some more conservative interpretations of Islam’s teachings on issues like premarital sex and homosexuality.
“To that, our response is that we never presented this as a theological book,” Maznavi says. “It’s not an Islamic text or a Muslim dating manual. What we wanted to present were true stories of American Muslim women and that’s what we did.”
And by being free to openly — or even anonymously — tell their stories, Muslim men and women have been able to claim experiences that their communities have pushed them to silence.
[We were] two orthodox girls with an unorthodox love, not willing to give up on our faith or each other.
One example is the Love, InshAllah essay, “A Prayer Answered,” by a young Muslim woman who writes under the pen name Tolu Adiba, in part, to protect the identities of partners who she said have not yet come out of the closet.
Yes — that means that she’s a Muslim lesbian, though she writes about how her faith and sexuality have warred within her for years both before and after she converted to Islam at the age of 18.
“I set out on a path, like so many lesbians and gays, trying to reconcile my faith and my sexuality, both of which I believed stemmed from God,” she writes. “But I lived in a state of fear, careful not to react externally to the harsh rhetoric I heard from imams and Muslim friends about gays, while cringing internally.”
Adiba describes how she fell in love with a Muslim woman friend who was, she notes, “Even more conservative than I was” and wore a long cloak and even covered part of her face with a niqab. Much to her surprise, the woman, who Adiba calls Hafsa, shared her feelings — and even divorced her husband to be with Adiba.
The two moved in together, but claimed to be friends splitting rent, not lovers sharing a bed.
“Hafsa and I were in love,” she writes, “Two orthodox girls with an unorthodox love, not willing to give up on our faith or each other. We moved forward, happy but conflicted.” While many Muslims might see them as living in sin, Adiba writes that she and Hafsa encouraged one another in their acts of worship — and became better Muslims through the relationship.
But their story was far from a fairytale. The two ended up parting ways, and Adiba ends her story on a bittersweet note.
“Is being a gay Muslim and finding love a contradiction or disgusting?” she asks. “I don’t think so. Does it really get better? Sometimes, but not always.”
Despite pushback from some, Maznavi says that Love, InshAllah helped open up a conversation that many Muslims found difficult to have before. Some readers said they gave copies of the book to friends and family in order to discuss difficult issues like finding partners, opening up about interfaith relationships, dealing with divorce, struggling with infertility, or recovering from the trauma of sexual violence.
That’s why Maznavi was so surprised when readers told her and her co-editor Mattu, “’This is not real. These stories are all happy.’”
“We were so confused by that sentiment,” she says, “because if you read the book, it’s [all about] grappling with real issues…that are not positive, but when we looked at the collection [we saw] that this idea of positivity is because of the underlying notion of hope and faith. I think those are themes that really came through.”
Overall, Maznavi says she and Mattu were overwhelmed by the response they received. Putting together the book was like opening a floodgate, and the stories have continued to pour in since the book was published in 2012. The two now manage a blog that features stories on Muslims and love. And although “it was never part of the plan,” as Maznavi says, they also edited Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy in 2014.
That book came at the request of Muslim men who felt they too were cast as a monolith. As Maznavi puts it, a Muslim man is often seen as angry and controlling, “so there’s not space for men to talk about issues of love and vulnerability in a way that’s not in that framework.”
That framework is a part of the problem, especially since it’s so often based on false information about Islamic teachings and entrenched social mores.
Through El Asira, Abdelaziz Aouragh says he’s seen people shift their perspective 180 degrees between when they learn about his company and when they talk to him about his mission, which is grounded in Islamic ideology.
“The taboo has been created by ourselves,” Aouragh says. “If we would go back to the times of the Prophet [and the generations that directly followed him], they were much more sophisticated when it comes to sexuality than we are today.”
He laughs as he recalls how one Muslim man confronted him about the sale of lingerie, claiming that Islam prohibits even married men and women from seeing one another naked — and described how he had sex with his wife between their bed sheets. Having studied Islamic teachings on sex for some time, Aouragh rebuffed the man’s views and converted him into a customer.
Such interactions make Aouragh even more committed to informing Muslims about the role of sexuality in Islam — and help them to embrace sex without the fear of sin. One day, he may actually open up that “sharia compliant sex shop” in Mecca — although those aren’t the terms he would use to describe his brand. While he believes all of his products comply with Islamic teachings, he hope that they’ll enhance sensuality and spirituality — not just sex.