“See? Even in the West, such merchandise is not on display in popular markets,” the young man said.
A woman walked by and saw the man pointing. She looked out of curiosity, but quickly turned and hurried away.
The popular markets spread many surprises over Iraq's sidewalks. You can find anything in these markets, even medicine. But the last thing one expects to see are sex toys, like dildos and other items for both men and women in various colors and sizes and a wide range of sexual performance enhancers.
These are surprising and strange things to find in a popular market, especially one in a capital where Islamist forces control political life and those in power frequently meddle in citizens’ everyday affairs in the name of ethics and religion.
Al-Monitor watched the shoppers in Shorja and saw many youths stop in front of these vendors, smiling and joking. Some went as far as waving a dildo in the air for their friends to see. Some were taken aback and asked the vendor questions like “Do people really buy these things?”
Iraqi society is known for its tribal and conservative nature, and religious control seems to have taken firmer hold in the past decade. It is odd that such merchandise is so openly sold, especially in a huge public market like Shorja, where products such as foodstuffs, clothes and cosmetics are the most common wares and where the open sale of sex toys appeared only relatively recently. Nevertheless, one such vendor said he believes his merchandise is as “normal as any other.”
The authorities have not turned a blind eye to this phenomenon. In 2012, Baghdad’s city council, annoyed with the spread of sexual products, called for legal measures against the networks involved in their trade. But the authorities were not powerful enough to control or limit this trade, and the merchandise has only become easier to find.
There are no specific laws against the trade of sex products, although selling them is widely considered indecent and immoral.
A vendor who wished not to be named told Al-Monitor, “This merchandise has been available in the market since 2004. We would sell it secretly to women’s beauty salons and to some women called 'dalalas,' who were known for selling the merchandise in popular neighborhoods. However, they have been sold on sidewalks in some popular markets for a long time.”
The vendor added while fixing his stand that he mostly “sells these dildos to men for fun and pranks.” But he asserted that some men “really need them, although they pretend to joke about the issue.”
According to the vendor, “Most women do not buy dildos from the stand. Usually, they order them on the phone” from stalls in the market.
Bab al-Sharqi market is a surreal oasis of illicit products. In the completely unregulated market, medicine is sold alongside shoes, military uniforms, toys, sexual performance enhancers, porn movies and mysterious ointments.
All products are on display, with no supervision or interference by the authorities. Vendors are audacious and blunt. Here, however, unlike Shorja, the shoppers are restricted to men.
Hussein Koulshi, a young vendor who sells sex drugs and toys, told Al-Monitor, “The police are always after us, but they cannot take over the Bab al-Sharqi market. It is our source of living, and we have our own ways to protect it.”
"Koulshi," whose nickname means “jack-of-all-trades,” noted that many clients buy toys and sexual enhancers. “Many teenagers buy this stuff,” he added, noting, “Prices vary between $40 and $200, but some merchandise is more expensive and rarely demanded.”
Abdul Hussein al-Kaabi, a pharmacist who owns a medicine warehouse, told Al-Monitor that the products come from China and are sometimes hidden in shipments of medicine or clothes and smuggled through ports or land border crossings.
“Most of the merchandise is not up to health standards and might lead to diseases and inflammation,” he said, adding, “Sexual enhancers might result in death, especially since they are taken without a doctor’s prescription.”
Ali Jassim al-Maytoti, a member of the Iraqi parliament's National Security and Defense Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Allowing such immoral products to enter Iraq is no less of a crime than IS’ destruction of society.” He added, “There is corruption at the border crossings, and this explains the entry of products banned by the state. Some networks aim to destroy society by supplying products that are against Iraq’s social mores.”
Maytoti does not have much information about these products, how they enter the country or how they are traded on the Iraqi market. However, he blames the “unstable security situation in Iraq, which makes it hard to pursue deviant social phenomena.”
Neighboring countries such as Iran, Jordan and Syria consider Iraq to be one of the places where products below global health standards are sold. The government has discovered counterfeit medicine and tainted food supplies being sold to Iraq from neighboring countries several times.
With the rampant security chaos and corruption in the government, limiting these phenomena or even passing laws to ban the importation of substandard products seems almost impossible.
Omar al-Jaffal is an Iraqi writer and poet. He is an editor of Bayt and Nathr, two intellectual magazines that are published in Iraq. He is also the chief editor of Al-Aalam al-Jadid, an electronic newspaper.