Pakistan and Valentine’s Day

The Algerian writer Kamal Daoud published an essay called “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World”, a masterful piece with echoes of Focault on the Arab world’s obsession with sex and its neuroses towards women and virginity. Daoud encapsulates perfectly how religion is hijacked to preach a hypervigilance about sexual matters. This causes a type of moral sickness which is spreading to Europe with the refugee crisis and the migration of large numbers of Arab men to European countries.

Orgasms are acceptable only after marriage — and subject to religious diktats that extinguish desire — or after death. Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.

It’s necessary but painful reading, especially as I contemplate, on February 13, certain elements of the religious right’s attempts to campaign against Valentine’s Day in Pakistan. I was in traffic the other day when I spotted two vans bearing this banner:

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen anti-Valentine’s day campaigns in Pakistan; in previous years religious extremists have gone around to shops selling cards and flowers and other paraphernalia and threatened them with violence. And it doesn’t just happen in Pakistan; in India, anti-Valentine’s Day ads have shown up in the metro stations in New Delhi this year, and in previous years similar thugs have gone around shutting down sales of roses and teddy bears and the rest.

In response to the anti-Valentine’s Day two years ago, Sabeen Mahmud started a counter-protest. This caused a lot of controversy, which I won’t go into here. But when questioned about why they assassinated her in 2015, her killers stated this counter-protest as the reason they were offended by her liberal views.

The anti-Valentine’s Day campaign in Pakistan has been surrounded by rumors amplified on social media that Valentine’s Day has been “banned” in various cities of Pakistan. The President of Pakistan found this important enough to mention it in a speech yesterday. The reasoning is that Valentine’s Day is a Western tradition, offensive to Islam. No word yet on whether or not a man is allowed to present his wife with a bouquet of flowers on February 14.

In the West, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest money-spinners in the year. Men and women are exhorted to perform extraordinary contortions, sexual and otherwise, to declare their love for one another. Flowers, chocolates, dinners, spa weekends, engagement diamonds and romantic getaways are all pushed onto eager consumers who are perhaps making up for 364 days of neglect with one big bang.

There are people that refuse to take part in this spectacle, and there are others who buy into it whole-heartedly, or go along with it because it’s kind of fun. When I was in school you could buy a Valentine gram (a cupcake and a rose) to be delivered in class to the person of your choice. It became a contest to see who was the most popular person, while others had to bear the utter humilation of not receiving a single cupcake, or got one bought by their mother.

Is Valentine’s Day a danger to Islam, to eastern values, to pocketbooks? Is the anti-Valentine’s Day another way of protesting the influence of Western values on vulnerable adults? Will we become better Muslims by turning our backs on teddy bears and chocolates? Will those who would have spent the day weeping because they don’t have a partner turn their anger and bitterness into religious righteousness and a morally upstanding position against Satan’s Day?

I don’t really have the answers to any of these questions. Valentine’s Day tends to pass me by like a plane in the sky, distant, but impossible to ignore because of all the noise it makes. I do know one thing though: love, like anything else, becomes all the more exciting and seductive when it is forbidden. Just ask Romeo and Juliet, or Heer and Ranjha, or Sassi and Pannu, or Ram and Leela.

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