King Fahd Causeway connects Saudi Arabia to the island kingdom of Bahrain, where some of the rules are rather more relaxed. If you leave Manama, the kingdom's capital, take a right down Baghdad Avenue and drive south to the traffic circle by the Last Chance supermarket, you'll find a place far removed from the strictures of Saudi morality, enforced chastity and prudishness.
"By the traffic circle … next to the laundromat. Yes. No, I don't have any dildos, only massage devices … Good. See you later. Maa al-Salama." Khadija Mohammed's telephone rings every 10 minutes. The last call was from a number beginning +966. "A lady in Saudi Arabia," Khadija explains. In other words, the typical customer of Khadija Fashion House in Manama.
Later that afternoon the lady comes by, concealed by a hijab that reveals nothing but her eyes, and purchases a magenta-colored "Oui", described on the packaging as a "simple, elegant personal massager, so thin it can fit in the palm of your hand."
Hiding Behind A Veil
Sometimes, Khadija Mohammed says, wearing a veil can be extremely practical. Nevertheless women without veils also come into her shop. Their husbands stand to one side while their wives shop.
A "beginner's bondage kit" complete with handcuffs and a blindfold -- typical sadomasochism equipment -- hangs on the wall behind the cash register. Such items are usually associated with the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. There are "cats-of-nine-tails" for seven Bahrain dinars each, as well as whips and G-spot stimulators. On the shelves there are enema nozzles, penis enhancement creams, belly-dancer costumes, "Dress Black Gladiator"-brand stilettos, and glow-in-the-dark nail polish. Khadija says she has just run out of dice for party games.
Khadija Mohammed is a 33-year-old mother of three. She wears a black abaya cloak and wishes she were a few pounds lighter. She is recently divorced. Khadija runs the entire business on her own, packs the online orders, and negotiates with suppliers in California and Guangzhou.
No Blow-up Dolls Or Movies
She says her most popular products are penis enlargement creams and edible underwear in a variety of flavors, from strawberry to mango. And she is constantly being asked about dildos, even by male customers. But the Fashion House doesn't stock them. Nor does it sell books, movies, blow-up dolls or photos, which are "not permitted in Islam." The erotic expert says Islam forbids images of "the sensitive parts of the body."
Not that this stops her from selling a glowing vibration ring -- the "Humm Dinger" -- for a sensitive part of the male body.
Khadija has been running her store for the past two years. It was the first sex shop in the entire Gulf region, and may still be the only one around. She began by selling traditional fashion online. "But sexy underwear sold best," she recalls. "From there it grew like bread in the oven. So I switched."
Driving Out The Hypocrisy
In the 16th century, the naked body inspired florid poetry in the Arab world. Mohammed al-Nafzawi's 'The Perfumed Garden' is a classic manual of oriental erotology similar to the 'Kama Sutra', though without illustrations. Chapter IX of this handbook, for example -- entitled "Sundry Names Given to the Sexual Organs of Women" -- contains no fewer than 27 detailed descriptions of female genitalia, ranging from "The Bottomless" to "The Glutton," from "The One with a Projection" to "The Resigned."
But prudishness has grown ever since that time, and has now taken on extreme proportions in most Arab countries. In Saudi Arabia, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Khadija's store, men are forbidden from speaking to women in public.
Khadija doesn't want to change the world, merely drive out some of the hypocrisy. "Everyone likes it, everyone does it. Everyone buys sex toys, though nobody around here would talk about them," she says. "I'd have fewer problems if I ran my shop in secret from home as an online store. But I don't want to hide."
'The Imams Aren't The Problem'
The little store by the traffic circle is doing a roaring trade. And there are just as many female customers as male ones. Khadija says she couldn't cope with more customers.
She's never had problems with her neighbors or passersby. She only had to remove some of the raunchier items from her shop window. Even the imam at the nearby mosque apparently has nothing to complain about. "He's a Shiite, and very open-minded," Khadija says. "What a man and a woman do to be happy in the privacy of their marital bed is their own business. No, the imams aren't the problem."
It isn't illegal to run a sex shop in Bahrain. Only this March, Khadija Mohammed won a court case confirming this. She flips open a pink laptop and clicks on the website for customs rules. "You see?" she says. Bahrain's import regulations forbid the importing of used tires, fissile material, pigs and horses. "The law says nothing about sexy products," she points out.
Nevertheless, some of her deliveries are being confiscated. Why? "My name sounds Sunni, but I'm a Shiite. The authorities began harassing me as soon as they found out. They don't want me to be successful."
Most of the people living in the Bahrain archipelago are Shiite Muslims. However the ruling elite is Sunni.
Vibrators aren't the problem. Nor are beginner's S&M equipment or lubricants. It's simply a question of entrepreneurial success. And that's good news.