Valentine’s Day under attack in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Romance is not dead in Pakistan, but it’s under attack.

Conservatives in Pakistan tacked up posters urging people to boycott Valentine’s Day on Thursday, saying it’s a western-inspired event that’s spreading vulgarity in their country. Romantics fought back with an arsenal of flowers, pink teddy bears and heart-shaped balloons.

“Here in this part of Pakistan we are faced with bomb blasts, and we don’t have much opportunity to enjoy and celebrate so to me it is one of those few occasions to celebrate,” said Taimur Hassan, a 29-year-old man working in the northwestern city of Peshawar. He was out buying a gift for his girlfriend, and looking for something different than a stuffed bear he got her last year.

That’s exactly the type of behavior many of Pakistan’s conservatives are worried about.

For them, Valentine’s Day is nothing but an occasion to encourage illicit relations between the country’s young — unmarried — males and females. It’s a sign that Western culture and values are eating away the fabric of Pakistan’s traditional, Islamic society. Valentine’s Day, they say, is not a Pakistani holiday and not part of the culture here.

In the southern city of Karachi, billboards implored people to “Say no to Valentine’s Day.” The “no” was encapsulated in a black heart, and the sign said the holiday reflects insensitivity and ignorance of Islam.

Tanzeem-e-Islami, the organization that put up the billboards, called on the interior ministry to suspend cell phone service on the holiday that celebrates love. Group spokesman Muhammad Samee said many young people use mobile phones to send Valentine’s Day greetings and suspending the service for the day would save people from “moral terrorism.”

Attitudes toward Valentine’s Day, named after a Christian saint said to have been martyred by the Romans in the 3rd Century, vary across the Arab world, with some devout Muslims opposing the holiday as a Western celebration of romantic love that corrupts Muslim youth.

Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a hardline Pakistani cleric, warned that young people who celebrate Valentine’s Day will be celebrating children’s births in November.

“In Islam, there is a concept of respecting and loving mother, sister, wife and daughter for 365 days a year,” said Ahmed, who thinks the holiday breeds vulgarity across the country.

Fearing a backlash against the holiday, Pakistani officials charged with monitoring and censoring television content issued a letter on Wednesday asking TV stations to be respectful when airing programs on Valentine’s Day. The letter, issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, noted that large segments of society do not think the holiday is in line with Pakistani culture and religion.

However, the instructions were rescinded following a hue and cry on social media and pressure from TV channels, according to an official with the regulatory authority. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In Pakistan, social media like Twitter and Facebook have increasingly become a way for the country’s small, liberal, secular segment of society to voice their opinions. By midday Thursday, Valentine’s Day was one of the most popular themes on Twitter.

Despite the earlier regulatory warning, TV channels didn’t seem to be shying away from Valentine’s Day programming. Many featured video of people shopping for presents like heart-shaped balloons and interviews with helmeted motorcycle riders driving off with bouquets of flowers.

Mazhar Abbas, director of current affairs at Express News, said the station hadn’t received any complaints on its programming.

While Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated in some Muslim countries like the United Arab Emirates, in other areas it’s been met with opposition:

—In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, government officials and clerics in Jakarta called for young people to skip Valentine’s Day, saying it was an excuse for couples to have forbidden sex.

—In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the government opposes Valentine’s Day, but tolerates it. It has not banned people or shops from celebrating the holiday. Some gift shops, toy stores and flower stores were selling special Valentine’s Day items, but the celebrations are not widespread, mostly are observed by university students or newlyweds.

—Iranian officials in January banned the import of Valentine’s Day gifts, but people in the capital, Tehran, were still out purchasing such gifts and making plans for meeting boyfriends or girlfriends for romantic dinners.

Despite the opposition in Pakistan, Valentine’s Day romanticism — or at least the marketing sentiment — wasn’t dampened much in the capital, Islamabad. Peddlers approached cars at stop signs hawking heart-shaped balloons, and the prices at flower stalls nearly doubled.

Eid Muhammed, a salesman at a gift shop in Peshawar, said gift card sales had dropped in recent years as people preferred to send text messages to their loved ones instead. But he said more people were buying gifts for their sweethearts. He estimated that about 90 percent of the customers were young people, and most were men.

One of the few exceptions was Amina Mahmood, a female college student, who was buying flowers for a special someone she chose not to describe.

“Some days are so special that we should not miss them,” she said shyly.