Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
V-Day is banned,
For me and for you.
How should love be celebrated? This is a timeless question that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and Islamabad High Court (IHC) have come to a definitive conclusion over: it is not Islamic, nor Pakistani.
An official notification forbidding any kind of romantic celebration on February 14 at an “official level or at any public place,” issued promptly a week ahead of the V-Day this year, effectively placed a damper on an otherwise festive occasion.
For those who don’t know, Valentine’s Day is historically reserved for elaborate expressions of love: flowers, chocolates, fancy dates are the basics of any celebration of this occasion. In recent years, this festive holiday has been increasingly commercialised and celebrated across the world, with sales and promotions rolled out in the name of love.
All this brouhaha over a seemingly harmless and peaceful event seems to be a result of the lack of appropriateness for such a holiday in Muslim culture and a rejection of the Westernised commodification of ‘love’.
It all started when a case was filed in early 2017 with the petitioner Abdul Waheed asserting that Valentine’s Day promoted “immorality, nudity and indecency.” There is a fear, particularly amongst the right wing religious groups, that occasions such as this one — which are a representation of secular and liberal values — undermine Pakistani culture and religion. In the past, we have seen a similar reaction to Black Friday sales, another Western capitalist import into our culture that caused a stir.
Mohsin, an employee at Blossoms, a popular florist located in Mini Market, said, “There is a marked difference between average sales and Valentine’s Day sales. Parties go on, lovers celebrate their love, and flowers fly off the shelves.”
Walking through the Packages Mall on February 14, usually a busy hubbub of young couples who have found the perfect date spot to while away the hours, the day of love seemed all but forgotten. Gone were the V-Day sales and promotions of just a few years ago, thanks to Pemra and much to the chagrin of retailers. Rabia, a young professional, commented, “Celebrating Valentine’s and other events is good for the economy. It provides a good boost to small flower shops that probably look forward to making some money on this day.” But with the ban, any hopes of a small boost in sales was lost.
Looking at the legality of this ban, question marks arise. Omer Malik, a lawyer at the prominent law firm Mandviwalla and Zafar, notes: “The ban has no legal basis, and the law and Constitution do not empower any judge to ban a specific day or activity without the backing of black letter law.
“The Constitution of Pakistan states that no law can be repugnant to Islam and Shariah,” he adds.
However, when one scrutinises the Pemra Code of Conduct, it is clear that any TV or radio programme containing anything “obscene or indecent or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality” or one that “is against basic cultural values, morality and good manners” shall not be permitted to be broadcast.
Event pages for ‘Ba Jamaat Namaz-e-Astaghfar’ at venues such as Badshahi Mosque were set up on social media, as if a collective prayer of atonement for all those wayward souls who wished to celebrate something as indecent as love was required in this time of need.
In contrast, the former chief of police of Mecca, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi is said to have announced Valentine’s Day as “a positive social event” and congratulated people for “it is not against Sharia (law).” He went so far as to say that it would be an act of “kindness” to “share greetings” and “exchange red roses.”
Interestingly, this newfound relaxed approach towards love in Saudi Arabia can be accredited to the new, liberally inclined Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Red roses were sold openly in the streets in Jeddah and Riyadh this year, and to some extent, love was free if only for one day.
But a keen observer will note that in both cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the attitude towards such an event is controlled by the state and based on its own vested interests.
Critics of the Pakistani crackdown on Valentine’s such as Soch, a social media based news community, point out: “While the government is busy banning displays of affection among consenting adults, one in every three Pakistani girls are married before the age of 18,” and “one in four girls, aged 15-19, have faced domestic violence in the last 12 months.”
Clearly, there are more pressing issues the courts, Pemra and our government should be directing their attentions towards.
As a response to the Valentine’s Day celebrations, ‘Haya Day’ (or the day of modesty) was observed at college campuses such as the Punjab University, where a segregated march was orchestrated by hundreds of students to demonstrate their ‘abhorrence’ for the Westernised occasion.
Addressing the crowd, Nazim Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba for Punjab University, Jibran Butt stated, “We are deeply attached to our religious and cultural norms and we prefer them over the unethical Western values being prevailed and promoted.”
In all of this, the question that remains unanswered is why our nation cannot live and let live. Though Valentine’s Day may be celebrated with most fervour by young couples in love, many families take it as an opportunity to remind each other of how much they appreciate one another. Naysayers point out the pagan and early Christian roots of this holiday, but fail to realise that Saint Valentine took on the charge of assisting young couples to elope and wed so as to save them from indulging in premarital relations.
The way Owais Shaikh, a spokesperson for student led Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba at Punjab University, sees it, “We should give women respect, not celebrate a day that degrades them,” though it is unclear how women are particularly degraded on February 14.
Muhammad Tahir, a cab driver and married man, observes: “In Pakistan, there are two ways of going about things: one, you follow your heart’s desire and live your life as you see fit. There are ways to achieve that. And, two, you observe the Islamic teachings dictated by the ulema and politicians. But there is nothing wrong with a husband and wife expressing their love.”
Maybe what Valentine’s Day needs in Pakistan is a rebranding to avoid the culture clash that is currently taking place. Or, maybe, what Pakistan needs is truly a day of love and appreciation for us to finally break free from the cycle of hate and fear that we find ourselves trapped in.