Where Valentine’s Day is unloved—and forbidden

The celebration of romance, inspired by a Christian saint, is unwelcome where it’s seen as foreign and immoral.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 14 Feb 2022, 11:36 GMT
Khobar, Saudi Arabia
Valentine’s Day has evolved into a global celebration of romance—but remains unloved in some parts of the world. Until 2016, merchants in Saudi Arabia were prevented from selling Valentine’s Day items; today, salespeople like this jewelry store clerk in Khobar do quick business around the holiday.
Photograph by Tasneem Al Sultan

Hearts, flowers, and kisses are part and parcel of Valentine’s Day, which has been celebrated with displays of romance and affection for centuries in some Western nations. In an Ipsos survey of people in 28 countries around the world, a whopping 55 percent of respondents said they planned to mark the occasion with their partner. But for people in some parts of the globe, celebrating the holiday—which marks the feast day of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr—is taboo or even illegal: Religious edicts and concerns about the spread of Western commercial culture have quashed the annual February 14 festival of lovers.

From bans to mass arrests and even threats of forced marriage, here’s where it’s been discouraged, or downright dangerous, to embrace the day.

While flower shops in Saudi Arabia openly celebrate Valentine’s Day today, in earlier years merchants hid their red flowers during the week of the holiday to avoid punishment by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a national department once charged with enforcing strict religious norms.
Photograph by Tasneem Al Sultan

Saudi Arabia

For decades, February 14 was just another day in Saudi Arabia, which banned Valentine’s Day as antithetical to Islamic notions of propriety. Though some people cautiously exchanged gifts and flowers in February, they ran the risk of a run-in with the nation’s religious police until about five years ago.

The change came after Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman stripped the nation’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a department once charged with enforcing strict religious norms, of many of its powers in 2016. Before that, people who dared to celebrate the holiday were often arrested, and shop owners were prevented from selling Valentine’s Day goods.

Since then, reports Al Arabiya English, Saudis have openly embraced the holiday and the prices of flowers and heart-studded gifts—long inflated because of the secrecy surrounding the holiday—have fallen.

(120213) -- KARACHI, Feb. 13, 2012 (Xinhua) -- A vendor sells red roses in a street in southern Pakistani port city of Karachi on Feb. 13, the eve of Valentine's Day. (Xinhua/Masroor) Xinhua News Agency / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E: info@eyevine.com http://www.eyevine.com
Photograph by Masroor, Xinhua via Redux
(160213) -- LAHORE, Feb. 13, 2016 (Xinhua) -- Pakistani men carry heart shaped balloons on a motorbike on the eve of Valentine's Day in eastern Pakistan's Lahore on Feb. 13, 2016.(Xinhua/Jamil Ahmed) Xinhua News Agency / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E: info@eyevine.com http://www.eyevine.com
Photograph by Jamil Ahmed, Xinhua via Redux

Pakistan

The holiday is a bone of contention in Pakistan. In 2016, the nation’s then president Mamnoon Hussain urged Pakistanis to avoid Valentine’s Day, telling a gathering of mostly female students that the holiday “has no connection with our culture.” The remarks, which were widely construed as a sign of support by the nation’s Islamic hardliners, spurred a 2017 ban by the nation’s high court and an edict to remove all traces of Valentine’s Day from public spaces and to ban merchandise, advertising, or promotion of the holiday in the media.

That hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for some Pakistanis. Despite police interference and surveillance, romantic rebels find ways to acquire flowers and give their lovers sentimental gifts for the holiday, though most do so under wraps.

“People are still going to go out and do their thing and have fun — maybe just in different ways,” one scofflaw who planned to make his wife a romantic breakfast on February 14 told the New York Times in 2018. “You can’t ban love.”

A Malaysian couple poses for photos at a light installation on Valentine’s Eve. In 2005, the nation’s highest council of Islamic law declared the holiday antithetical to Islam.
Photograph by Photograph, via Alamy

Malaysia

Malaysian authorities have also done their best to do away with the holiday. In 2005, the nation’s Fatwa Council, which interprets Islamic law and makes decrees, declared Valentine’s Day antithetical to Islam because it had “elements of Christianity.” Though Christian groups urged the council to reconsider, claiming there is little connection between the modern Valentine’s Day and Christianity, the ban persisted.

Religious authorities upped the ante after that, when they began mass arrests of couples suspected of celebrating the holiday. In one incident in 2011, authorities in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur targeted couples in budget hotels and public parks, the BBC reported, calling the holiday synonymous “with vice activities.”

Iran

Religious authorities in Iran have turned to the public for help prosecuting those who celebrate the holiday in defiance of strict religious laws. The government has long banned symbols of the day, warning that they are “anti-cultural,” and condemned Valentine’s Day as a sign of immorality and Western decadence.

But Valentine’s Day has grown so popular that some Islamic hardliners now encourage observing an ancient Iranian holiday, Sepandārmazgān, instead. The holiday, which falls on February 23, is known as a Persian day of love honouring Spandarmad, a Zoroastrian deity who represented a loving wife.

That hasn’t kept many Iranians from celebrating the Western holiday in secret too, despite a ban on the production and sale of Valentine’s cards and other trinkets.

An artist prepares a Valentine’s Day decoration in Kolkata, India. Hindu nationalists in the country have often protested against the holiday as an invasion of amoral Western influence.
Photograph by Tumpa Mondal, Xinhua via Redux

India

In India, extreme Hindu nationalists have protested the holiday and threatened those who celebrate, even attacking young couples and cutting their hair or blackening their faces.

A notable anti-Valentine campaign focused on social media platforms, where 518 million Indians were estimated to be active as of 2020. In 2015, a fringe far-right Hindu political party threatened to force people who made public displays of love on social media for Valentine’s Day to marry, and threatened to force anyone it found celebrating the holiday in public into impromptu nuptials, too.

 

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