Recently the celebration of ‘Valentine’s Day’ has again hit the news. As if there is no bigger evil in the world, extremists (NAP where art thou?) have been putting up billboards, distributing pamphlets, and even publishing advertisements in newspapers denouncing what they see as ‘un-Islamic’, ‘western’, and in one amusing advertisement, ‘a celebration of 14th February 1488 when a Jewish man was put to death for promoting sex outside marriage.’ Obviously these people have a lot of time on their hands to concoct such stories and dream up such absurdities. But this strong reaction, including a rumour that the Interior Ministry had ‘banned’ the celebration of Valentine’s Day in Islamabad, merits deeper analysis.
First, let me explain the origins of Valentine’s Day. There are apparently at least three Saint Valentine’s. One was a priest of Rome, another a Bishop of modern-day Terni in Italy and a third a person in North Africa. All these Valentine’s were martyred for their faith, and were collectively commemorated in the Christian church. In fact, Pope Gelasius-I when instituting the feast day on February 14, 496 AD noted that these Valentines numbered among those “…whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
While the historical Valentine’s did not have much to do with the modern connotations, the link with love seems to have emerged during the Middle Ages when the middle of February was noted for the season when birds chose their mates. Hence, Chaucer noted in the Parliament of Foules, ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’
Thereafter, there are several references in fourteenth and fifteenth century English and French literature of this day being chosen as the one where people express their love for each other and celebrate it. The name Valentine was easy to adopt as it was the nearest day to the mating season, and also because there was hardly anything known about any of the Valentine’s and so a legend was easily created. In the modern day, with commercialisation and consumerism, this day has taken on another dimension, just as most other holidays all over the world.
Now, with the origins of the day settled, as not in the Jewish religion, or even the Christian one, except for the name, but in the realm of birds, at least we can conclude that it is not some Jewish/Christian/Hindu/Martian plot. It could, however, be something which the birds have promoted for their own chirpy benefits.
Coming to the Pakistani context, it is significant that all the outraged people and organisations which have spent so much time and energy in deriding this day have hardly ever voiced their opinion so strongly (and mostly never) when other ‘outrageous’ things happen in our society — for example, they stay quiet when Imambargah’s are attacked, they are silent when shrines are bombed, when women are gang raped, when cold blooded murders take place in the name of honour, and when countless of our children are molested throughout the country every day. In fact, these organisations are at the forefront of defending such activities, and even own them wholeheartedly.
So one must ask: why are these organisations so scared of Valentine’s Day? They are scared because it goes against their one basic principle: control. Above all, Valentine’s Day speaks about a day where the maxim ‘love has no boundaries’ is made manifest. It is not about extra martial relations, as the detractors would have you believe, or about cheating on one’s spouse, or about any such absurdity.
In some ways the context in which this day became popular in Europe was much more conservative and closed than the one in Pakistan, yet the celebration still survived because it did not detract from the sanctity of marriage or encourage affairs. It was quite simply a day about love — expressing it in different ways to different people, parents, siblings, children, friends, co-workers, and yes, even someone you are in love with.
Obviously the bizarre people in our society think that every couple in love and not yet married must have ‘done it’ but there are scores of couples who know the importance of marriage and what needs to be done where. Jumping to conclusions only exhibits the shallowness of the complainers.
Over the years, Pakistan has become a society where everyone wants to control everyone else. There are people who are not satisfied unless every aspect of a human’s life is controlled, regulated, and as a result made miserable. Valentine’s Day breaks this chokehold on the society and encourages people to, at least on one day, break free. Certainly we do not ‘need’ a Valentine’s Day’; what we do on that day — primarily show people that we care about them — can (and perhaps should) be done on every day of the week by most of us, so a day surely does not do the concept justice. But banning it or spending time, energy and a lot of money in deriding it, certainly shows the bitterness and frustration in our society.
One of the 99 names of Allah is the name ‘Al-Wadud,’ ‘The Loving One’, and in Christianity God is clearly called Love. So even in the religious sense love is a central theme. So what about loving God and loving one’s neighbour this Valentine’s Day?