Valentine’s Day remains risky business in Middle East

February 24, 2010
Valentine’s Day remains risky business in Middle East
February 14, 1:01 PMMiddle East Affairs ExaminerWilliam Heenan
Pakistani protesters hold placard reading "It's not a matter of heart, but of faith."
Pakistani protesters hold placard reading “It’s not a matter of heart, but of faith.”
AP/Fareed Khan
We often take for granted our exchanges of chocolates, roses, and Cupid cards on Valentine’s Day, but our counterparts in the Middle East often have to celebrate clandestinely. Such public displays of affection could land them in jail in some places.

In a now-annual preemptive strike against Valentine’s Day, the Saudi government’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice launched a campaign last week against shops selling red-colored merchandise or other symbols of the outlawed holiday. The Commission’s religious-police enforcers, the Muttawa, have confiscated all red items in the shops, including flowers. The details were described in an AP story titled “No Valentine’s: Saudi religious police see red.”

The Valentine’s Day prohibition reflects the Saudi’s strict Wahhabi school of Islam. The Kingdom’s authorities maintain that Valentine’s Day represents Christian traditions and encourages  relations between men and women outside of marriage, a punishable offense. In addition, as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia also bans several Muslim holidays except the two most important ones, Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha, because it considers them “religious innovations” that Islam doesn’t sanction. 

The AP story went on to report that the Filipino labor-welfare organization Migrante has urged the million or so Filipino guest workers in Saudi Arabia to celebrate Valentine’s Day privately. It also warned them to refrain from saying “Happy Valentine’s” in public, and avoid wearing or carrying anything red.

Strangely enough, most of these items are legal at other times of the year. If Saudis or well-to-do expatriate workers wish to celebrate, they could have shopped earlier or traveled to more religiously liberal nearby countries, such as Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, where luxury hotels would be draped in red, offering romantic dinner specials. Cairo, Egypt, also offers restaurants gaudily decorated in red ribbon and hearts. 

In a bizarre coincidence last Friday, a Saudi women’s group called for a boycott of lingerie stores in the Kingdom for two weeks, including on Valentine’s Day. They are protesting the contradiction that women have to reveal their underwear sizes to strange men in a conservative, Islamic nation, where female clerks are banned in most establishments. The full story appeared yesterday on the BBC website and is titled “Saudi lingerie shop boycott call.”

In other Middle Eastern nations, one has to be careful, especially if he or she is a popular singer holding a concert on February 14 in Yemen. Yesterday the English-language Yemen Observer reported that Al Qaida threatened to kill Syrian singer Asalah Nasri if she sang as scheduled in the southern port city of Aden. Nasri is known for her love songs and her Tarab oriental opera style. The concert organizers insist that the date was chosen to coincide with the midterm break of Yemen’s public schools.

Meanwhile, Iranians in Tehran are bravely celebrating the holiday despite a massive crackdown on political dissent and occasional warnings from the the government’s Office of Vice and Virtue. In an interview with National Public Radio last Friday, Farnaz Fassihi, Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, reported that many shops are fully decorated and some carry English-language Valentine’s gifts.

She attributed the holiday spirit to the fact that the population is getting younger and is well connected to the outside world. While there is an unspoken rule that unmarried couples should not associate in public, Fassihi says that she has seen many strolling Tehran’s streets hand in hand.

Finally, in Pakistan, as reported in the same AP story above, activists of the religious party Jamat Ahl-e-Sunnat rallied against Valentine’s celebrations in Karachi yesterday. Many consider the holiday un-Islamic, but others still buy flowers from busy street vendors and exchange gifts at this time of year.

As we exchange our Valentine’s Day promises and gifts in relative safety in the US, many of our counterparts in the Middle East have to look over their shoulders. Their persistent bravery will make the holiday even more meaningful for the rest of us.  

Valentine’s Day in the Middle East
Valentine's Day in the Middle East
These pictures accompany the article on a risky Valentine’s Day in the Middle East.

More About: UAE · United Arab Emirate · Bahrain · Egypt · Asalah Nasri



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