By Rafia Zakaria
February 11th, 2015
Like so much else in Pakistan, Valentine’s Day is a political event. As has been the case in the recent restive years, the arrival of the mid-February homage to love is accompanied by posters and billboards as well as terse castigations for would-be revellers. “Sorry Valentine’s Day: I am Muslim” said one billboard last year featuring a raised palm pushing away the notoriously red trinkets that signify the holiday.
It’s not just signage of course that signifies the position in the social and political narrative of extremism, where everything Western is automatically a betrayal of faith. A resounding no to Valentine’s Day is yet another sign of public piety.
So situated, the celebration or castigation of Valentine’s Day becomes a barometer of where one stands on the avowal or disavowal of the recipe ‘anti-Westernism equals authenticity’.
In 2013, a number of female students at the University of Karachi marked the day by wearing the hijab and encouraging other students to do so. In Peshawar, the urban centre where the outcry was perhaps the strongest, Valentine’s Day was renamed ‘day of modesty’ implying that the brash and public celebration of love was in some way immodest and immoral.
Even the government appears to have joined the call in the past few years, with media notices issued to news channels warning them against broadcasting any shows that promoted the celebration of Valentine’s Day. The authorities calculate it is better always to be safe than sorry.
Cities are lonely places and the idea of love makes the alienation of city life perhaps a bit more bearable.
The issue would not be such a big one, or require such a terse forbidding by religious cadres, if they did not in turn see its burgeoning popularity. In Pakistan’s cities, however rife they may be with violence and extremism, the toys and trinkets of Valentine’s Day such as red (sometimes dyed) flowers, stuffed toys and cards bearing professions of love and affection are widely available. Contrary to the avowal of religious parties, they do not represent a resolute turning away from devout religious practice but another demographic reality.
As I discussed in my recent article on the urbanisation of Pakistan the demographic changes in the country are leaving their own mark on the dynamics of intimate relationships. In the collectivist tribe and the caste-inspired mores of a bygone rural life, marriage represented a form of social capital, its arrangement and execution all contributing to the interconnections that are crucial for survival.
In contrast, the urban emphasises the individual with his likes and dislikes, and consequently romantic love that makes its appearance in a person’s idea of a marital relationship. Add to this the easy availability of communication and the global dimensions of city life, and it is hardly surprising that people want to commemorate the holiday. Cities are lonely places and the idea of love, the possibility of it, makes the alienation of life here perhaps a bit more bearable.
If the urban and individualist is one dimension of the issue, class is another. Whatever your take on the issue of whether or not Valentine’s Day should be celebrated, it is impossible to ignore that its popularity in Pakistan (and elsewhere) is tied to a duly popularised commercialism. In a very real sense, celebrating Valentine’s Day requires a purchase of this or that, cards, candies, flowers, jewellery and whatever else.
Because this is so, it is inevitable that those partaking of it are also those with expendable income, the ability to purchase things to demonstrate the love or affection they are hoping to express.
Love then is limited by purchasing power and for many out there this is in itself is a form of degradation, an equalising of what the heart can give with what money can buy. In class terms, it is a signifier of those who have both money and love, a shot in the heart to those who have not.
This consumer critique of Valentine’s Day, if adopted by its detractors in Pakistan, would be a convincing one, if they applied it not simply to this particular iteration of mass consumerism but to all of it. This, of course, is not so; the groups who so vocally oppose Valentine’s Day never seem to raise their voice on other issues where class imposes constraints.
If lurid displays of material excess are despicable on this particular occasion, so too are they on Eid, for instance, when livestock costing more than the annual income of more than half of Pakistan is paraded and sacrificed as an emblem of the wealth of this or that family.
If it is principle that matters then garish and public displays of wealth and consumption are wrong at the outset, and not based on their content. Similarly, weddings, even when celebrated by the most devout and orthodox, regularly feature massive expenditure and unabashed waste. Every now and then, there are recriminations, but never any billboards or signage or any organised campaign insistent on curbing costs, stopping the waste and disentangling it from society.
Consumerism, it seems, bothers the self-described pious only when it implicates Valentine’s Day. Its evils otherwise can be ignored and are diminished and unworthy of mention. If modesty is indeed the value that preaches equanimity, in love and everything else, one cannot but wonder why the prescription is limited to the happenings of Feb 14.
Pakistan stands at the cusp of many changes and the dynamics of intimate relationships are hence, like so much else, a battleground. Unsurprisingly then, Valentine’s Day in the country is not simply a day to buy flowers and chocolates, to send or not to send messages professing love and affection? It is hyped up instead to civilisational dimensions, and is a statement of what the country is and what it wants to be and whether within that, there is any room or permission to fall in love.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.