By Syed Mansoor Hussain
February 14, 2015
It seems that the only things encouraged now are public demonstrations of piety. All fun activities have been driven into the privacy of our homes or, worse, literally underground
Today is the day when an otherwise obscure Catholic saint is remembered as the ‘saint of love’. Whether St Valentine had anything to do with love is debatable. All that is known about him is that during the early days of Christianity he was ‘martyred’ by a Roman emperor for essentially being a Christian. Somewhere along the way his feast day (the day he was martyred) became associated with love. The question then is why this particular saint became associated with romantic love and not some sort of divine love that saints of all denominations were given with much frequency. Evidently, it was all because of a medieval English poet given to slightly ribald stuff.
More than 1,000 years after the saint was martyred, Geoffrey Chaucer, in a poem titled ‘Parliament of the fowls’, mentioned St Valentine as a saint bringing lovers together. So most ‘experts’ thus blame Chaucer for the modern version of St Valentine’s Day. While doing some background reading and fact checking about St Valentine, I came upon the role Chaucer played in the myth of Valentine. Here I have a confession to make. I have never read Chaucer but having heard of this particular poem I always thought that it was based on Fariduddin Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’ (Mantiq at Tayr). Fortunately, while doing this background reading I was adequately disabused of this idea.
The day is celebrated in most countries in a non-denominational way and not as a religious holiday. Religious holidays have become commercialised and even in Pakistan the two major religious holidays have taken on a commercial aspect that is now more important than the original religious context. The same is true of St Valentine’s Day and it has become the day when the largest number of roses and chocolates are sold. Once upon a time, appropriate greeting cards were also in great demand but modern methods of communication have made greeting cards a lot less important. And today, even in Pakistan, many young men and women, boys and girls, and even a few old geezers like myself will exchange messages of undying love and affection. Predictably, the mullah brigade will denounce such an activity as contrary to our cultural values.
The mullahs are against all things that relate to love and affection; for them the only way a Muslim should express any feeling is by performing some religious duty. But then it is idiotic to say that our culture does not revolve around romantic love. All of our great poets are given to descriptions of the beloved, the joy of togetherness and the sorrows of separation. Even our great folk stories like Heer Seyal, Sassui-Punnuh and Sohni-Manhiwal are all about love. So, to celebrate love seems to me to be very much a part of our culture. And having lived in the US as well as in Pakistan, even when I was young I do not recollect any particular tradition towards debauchery on this particular day. If anything, it always seemed to me that the expressions of love exchanged on this day tended to be a bit more ‘chaste’ than normal!
It is indeed unfortunate that recent ‘innovations’ in Islam are so against all those things that bring happiness and joy to people. While growing up in Pakistan there seemed to be a lot of things around that seemed to be fun. Public Melas (fairs), celebrations at the shrines of Sufi saints that were joyous occasions, the famous horse and cattle show in Lahore — attendance at which was a must for all sorts of people and there were even the occasional circuses that came through. And of course Basant; the festival of kites was what made spring something to look forward to even for people like me who could never fly a kite. It seems that the only things encouraged now are public demonstrations of piety. All fun activities have been driven into the privacy of our homes or, worse, literally underground.
It is true that Pakistan has many problems. Poverty, sectarianism, corruption, violence of all sorts and repression of women are just some of the few things that attract the wrong sort of attention towards us as a country. Of course, we cannot fix too many things since our two basic problems, poverty and a lack of education, will only improve once we as a country decide our true priorities. I am all for the role of religion in society as long as it promotes morality rather than piety. Here, I want to make an important point about gender equality or at least some sensitivity to this issue. Respect for women is sadly often a learned behaviour. It starts from how our parents and other elders interact with each other, how women and girls in our households are treated and goes on as we grow up and start to interact with people outside the home. This interaction includes educational institutions and, eventually, the work environment. Being comfortable in the company of members of the opposite sex is, in my opinion, the basic requirement for treating each other as equals. And Valentine’s Day, in my opinion, promotes exactly that sort of relationship between males and females.
Much is made of the objectification of women. It is sexual desire rather than romance that is emphasised, especially in the world of television and advertisements. Even in Pakistan, we are getting pretty close to that point as far as our television advertisements are concerned. Sex sells. But that is exactly the reason why I feel that Valentine’s Day is important. It is, in my opinion, an antidote to the sexualisation of romance. Before I am accused of excessive naiveté, I will quite agree that sex and romance are intertwined but I will also insist that they are not the same thing. And I am sure that most of my readers, who have experienced a bit of both, will tend to agree with me.
Syed Mansoor Hussain is a former editor of the Journal of Association of Pakistani descent Physicians of North America (APPNA)