The South Asia Channel

Love and Politics: Valentine’s Day in Pakistan

On Feb. 14, liberal activists in Pakistan gathered to share a provocative message: secular or religious, Pakistanis deserve to celebrate whatever holiday they want.

Veiled Pakistani women choose Valentine's Day gifts at a shop in Peshawar on February 11, 2011. A number of shopping centers in Pakistan are full of gifts including cards, stuffed toys, chocolates and miscellaneous items for Valentine's Day celebrated on February 14. AFP PHOTO/ A. MAJEED (Photo credit should read A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Veiled Pakistani women choose Valentine's Day gifts at a shop in Peshawar on February 11, 2011. A number of shopping centers in Pakistan are full of gifts including cards, stuffed toys, chocolates and miscellaneous items for Valentine's Day celebrated on February 14. AFP PHOTO/ A. MAJEED (Photo credit should read A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)

On Valentine’s Day 2016, a mustached man with a wide smile held a provocative placard in the upper-class Karachi suburb of Clifton. It read, “We the Fahash,” meaning “rebels” or “those of doubtful morality” in Urdu. The man was Mohsin Sayeed, a profuse fashion critic and civil rights activist. Huddled around him were more than a dozen fellow Karachi residents, diverse in age and socio-economic class. In their hands, they held gleaming red balloons and signs pleading, “Don’t hate love.” Ambareen Kazim Thompson, with friends, arrived carrying a home-baked cake. As their troops grew, balloons were shared, cake was eaten, and Ambareen went around doing her business — engrossing street children and passersby in conversation, educating them about their rights to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and any other day they wanted to hail, for that matter, as citizens of an independent democracy.

In Pakistan, such a demonstration in support of Valentine’s Day is another battle in the ongoing rivalry between liberals and conservatives. The two sides frequently stand toe-to-toe with each other, waiting for the tension to turn to violence.

The Valentine’s Day gathering embodied a brazen agenda to criticize Mamnoon Hussain, President of Pakistan, who, just a few days before, called on the nation to avoid any celebrations for Valentine’s Day on the grounds that its sentiment is foreign to Pakistan, and in Hussain’s words, “has no connection with our culture.” For a president who does not often speak in public, this rare statement seemed to be political posturing to appease religious groups who have been known to take their protests against Valentine’s Day to violent extremes. At a social level, Valentine’s Day has become popular among the middle and upper classes. But as religious extremism has grown in Pakistan, liberal holidays, epitomized by Valentine’s Day, have polarized the country. Although there is no official national policy against Valentine’s Day, ministries in conservative regions have openly banned the holiday. Bowing to religious politics in Pakistan, government support for the right-wing stance reflects the influence that Islamist parties currently hold.

The placards carried by Mohsin and his peers rejected the rhetoric of religious parties that use Islam as the basis to ban the holiday by labelling the fête unreligious and those who celebrate it, uncouth.

For Mohsin, public support for Valentine’s Day went beyond right-wing versus left-wing politics. In his words, “We were not there to protest, but to spread love.”

In a city like Karachi, Mohsin’s group understands the danger of taking a stand. Their close friend and fellow activist Sabeen Mahmud had to go into hiding after marching in support for Valentine’s Day a few years ago. She advocated the same message: celebrate whatever you want. Pakistani author Uzma Aslam Khan called Sabeen’s motives, “as wide as love,” a testament to her determination to continue pushing for freedom of expression, undeterred by obstacles and dangerous circumstances. The hope of her message quickly turned desolate for Sabeen when she was tragically shot and killed on the streets of Karachi in April 2015. Police reports claimed the culprit was a radicalized youth who confessed to killing her in part because of her pro-Valentine’s Day campaigns.

Sabeen protested against the extreme right wing voices in Pakistan that she felt were using religion as a tool to coerce people into submission to traditional norms, at the cost of their personal freedoms.

One of these conservative voices is Shahzad Ahmed, a leading member of Peshawar’s Jamat-e-Islami’s youth wing, Shabab-e-Milli. Shahzad told me over the phone that he gathers hundreds of youth every year to counter the gaieties of Valentine’s Day. He is very pleased with this year’s results. “We have been able to spread the love for God,” he said, in reference to recent developments — the president’s message, the resolution passed in Peshawar banning Valentine’s Day, and notices released in northern districts of the country barring shopkeepers from selling cards or flowers. To him, these moves by the government were achieved through many years of struggle to preserve Pakistani Islamist values over western secularism.

“I love my religion and I won’t let Muslim brothers walk on an evil path. Such western concepts contaminate our society with filth. People who celebrate it are offending Islam. They are automatically discarded from our religion.”

Ahmed’s message is potent, and widely accepted in Pakistan because it appeals to a compelling force in the ordinary citizen’s life: religion.

The fear of abandoning traditional principles slips seamlessly into the arteries of community life. The danger of being labelled as not adhering to the principles of Islam could mean exclusion from society, mosques, colleges, and even family. The humble nucleus of an idea, that citizens have the right to celebrate Valentine’s Day and any other holiday they deem worthy, can spark colossal consequences for a young person’s life.

Through student groups installed by Islamist parties, this right wing narrative can reach from local mosques to contemporary English language classrooms. From minbars, religious leaders sway young people to believe that adherence to a particular conservative vein of Islam determines the value of one’s very self. A prescribed version of morality becomes central to identity and there is no room for compromise — you’re either in, or you’re out.

A few miles away from Mohsin, authorities declared a shutdown at the busiest beach in cosmopolitan Karachi. Sea View beach is a diverse spot in Karachi that attracts residents from all socio-economic classes and all religious mindsets. Women in jeans and t-shirts are seen side by side with women in burqas. It is a spot frequented by couples and families from both conservative and liberal backgrounds. I called the relevant police station for further details on its closure, only to be told by the clerk, “Madam, it’s for safety reasons.”

To be fair, precaution is not a bad idea in an era marked by fundamentalist-driven violence. “If lovers are spotted strolling down the beach, they can be beaten up by some people,” the clerk explained, referring vaguely to the religious police. Right wing political workers associated with Islamist parties often gather in mobs and attack liberal spaces. By banning Valentine’s Day activities or individual couples at the beach, the authorities do remove a target for fanatics, but they also shut down a space where the liberal part of society can exercise their freedom in the public sphere.

Last year, liberal and conservative groups collided. In the northern city of Peshawar, Ahmed’s friends, from Islami Jamiat Tulba (IJT), a different branch under Jamat-e-Islami, violently beat up a group of liberal students for protesting against IJT’s ban on Valentine’s Day. The clashes injured three protesters, with bullets being exchanged by both sides and three local classrooms being burned down.

In comparison, this year’s activities were mild. In Peshawar, a source told me, people secretly bought flowers and exchanged cards. From Karachi, a 27 year old woman boasted, “You can’t control a big heart.”

Over the years, rallies have enmeshed many cities, with hundreds of liberal and right wing youth protesting, often with opposing ideologies gathering at the same time. Religious clerics and conservative crowds have gathered outside press clubs in big cities to burn cupids and paper hearts. Meanwhile, activists like Mohsin and Ambareen have stood peaceful and tall, flashing red helium balloons and inviting the public to savor their cake. It remains to be seen whether next year’s Valentine’s Day will be more peaceful, or more violent.

A.Majeed/AFP/GettyImages

Kiran Nazish is an independent journalist and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, International Security Program. She has reported on issues related to South Asia and Middle East from across the region. In 2014, she received a Daniel Pearl Fellowship that took her to work at the New York Times, where she reported from New York City. She is currently working on a book about censorship in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @kirannazish

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