Screengrab from the El-Asira website.

The international media went into a frenzy after news broke that a “halal sex shop” was expected to open in Mecca, Islam's holiest site. It was certainly a juicy story (and undeniably clickable), but it turned out to be almost entirely false.

Since April 20, foreign media have been reporting that a sex shop was planning to open a storefront in Mecca, citing an article published on Moroccan news site Alyaoum24. Dildos for sale in the holiest of Muslim cities? It was such a wild story that it got picked up by many well-respected news sites, including the International Business Times, French dailies Le Point and Le Parisien, and Spanish news site ABC.

But what was the actual source of this rumour? The Moroccan site, Alyaoum24, cited an AFP interview conducted in June 2014 with Abdelaziz Aouragh, the Moroccan-Dutch entrepreneur who founded El-Asira, a line of erotic products for a Muslim clientele. In the article, Aouragh says he would like to expand his brand into Saudi Arabia.

El-Asira does indeed sell and advertise body products promising to “improve the sensual life of couples”. But while shops in the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates carry its lotions and oils, El-Asira doesn’t actually have a storefront. It has an online boutique.

On the site, El-Asira puports to sell only products that are accepted under Islamic Sharia law: "all our products are maintaining the integrity, pure humanity and ethics inherent with the Sharia." Its catalogue includes lotions made with oriental oils such as Argan, prickly pear, or agarwood. El-Asira does not sell dildos or sex toys and its products have never been sold or marketed in or near Mecca.

El-Asira products are sold in this shop in the Amsterdam airport. Photo by Abdelaziz Aouragh.

"A sex shop can’t be halal"

When contacted by FRANCE 24, Abdelaziz Aouragh said he was amazed and confused by the media buzz.

It’s incredible how false information can go viral! The entire world, from Australia to Brazil, was talking about it—but very few journalists actually tried to contact me to verify this information.

The term “halal sex shop” was all over the media but it isn’t an accurate term: a sex shop itself can’t be halal. El-Asira is not a “sex shop”; we sell a line of body care products for enhancing sensual pleasure. And when I say that El-Asira products are accepted under sharia law, I am talking about how we market and sell our line. For example, I sell lingerie, but I display it without using images of real women wearing it. I am also careful to explain how to use a product without using any inappropriate or vulgar words. I’m Muslim myself and I don’t want to offend anyone. So, yes, I would like to open my own El-Asira boutiques, but I will only do so after first opening a concept store to evaluate how people react to it.
This lotion is for women to use on “intimate body areas.” Screengrab from El-Asira website.

I have been to Mecca numerous times but I have never once contacted Saudi authorities about selling my brand there… that is complete fiction. That said, I do think they are open to my concept because, a few years ago, a chain of Saudi supermarkets contacted me because they were interested in selling El-Asira products. In any case, all of the noise about this false information has been great for my business. Our products have been ordered by stores in the Maldives, in Malaysia, in Bahrain and in Tunisia…!

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Amira Bouziri (@AmiraB22).