- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

LAHORE, Pakistan | In this conservative Muslim country, some young couples will be hiding the chocolates, roses and other symbols of their affection on Valentine’s Day because it’s seen as too Western, vulgar and “un-Islamic.”

Commemorating the Western saint whose day has become a celebration for lovers worldwide is officially outlawed in some parts of Pakistan, even though there is a popular groundswell of support that the authorities have never managed to suppress.

This year, one university has gained notoriety with a new tactic to counter the furtive celebrations of romance by rebranding Valentine’s Day as “Sister’s Day” — reigniting the annual debate surrounding the day by announcing plans to hand out traditional, modesty-preserving headscarves and shawls to female students instead of tokens of undying affection.

School officials want “to promote Eastern culture and Islamic traditions among the students,” said Vice Chancellor Zafar Iqbal Randhawa of the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad in central Pakistan.

“In our culture, women are more empowered as they’ve earned their due respect as sisters, mothers, daughters and wives,” Mr. Randhawa said. ” … Nations that forget see their cultural values [disappear].”

Some believe it’s a great idea, reinforcing the country’s cultural values.

“By celebrating Valentine as ‘Sister’s Day,’ we are telling our women that we respect them,” said Tufail, a student at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad, who like other students interviewed declined to be fully identified because of students recently being expelled for criticizing the school online. “Why should we follow Western traditions and promote vulgarity in our country?”

Still, not everyone in the student body is happy with the proposed switch.

“What business does the university have to celebrate Feb. 14 as ‘Sister’s Day’?” wondered Salman Sajad, 18, a university student at Government College University in Faisalabad. “It is not that we expect the chancellor to give away red roses to female students, but why should the university administration make a joke of itself?”

Others pointed out the absurdity of the school’s move.

“This university is just another madrassa” — an Islamic religious school, said Farah, a University of Agriculture student, who joked about the chancellor possibly distributing blindfolds to males to protect them from the sight of a woman on Valentine’s Day. “Every day is a ‘Sister’s Day’ here, as the administration doesn’t allow male and female students to sit together in the class or even work in a group.”

National divide

The division of opinion on the campus plays out across Pakistan, where many celebrate the holiday while others take to the streets in protest. In the country which has become increasingly conservative over the past few years as religious political activism has seen a rise, it is common to see members of parties such as the Taliban-linked Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam out protesting against Valentine’s Day festivities and commercialism.

Valentine’s Day is officially banned in the capital after the Islamabad High Court ruled in favor of a petition against it in 2017. The court ordered media outlets to refrain from printing or airing any Valentine’s promotions and celebrations and for city officials to enforce the ban in public. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority echoed that ruling in the past two years by banning the airing of any Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have nationwide bans.

Even so, every year at the start of February, billboards and social media sites pop up marking the holiday, met by signs and websites protesting the day as an immoral foreign import.

At restaurants, bakeries, online shopping portals, courier services, clothing and gift shops, special offers and unique gifts marking the holiday are everywhere in Pakistan’s major cities. The motive is not romance but revenues — for merchants, Valentine’s Day is too big a marketing opportunity to pass up.

“Valentine’s is good for business,” said Rana Islam, a gift shop owner in Lahore. “Sales at my shop double during the first two weeks of February. The buyers are of all ages and genders.”

“I don’t care what ideology is behind it — I know that a man loving a woman is natural and if there is a day to celebrate it with gifts what’s the harm in it,” he added.

Meanwhile, some scoff at conservative attempts to do away with the holiday in the name of protecting women’s honor.

“Women should be treated with dignity in the society all days of the year, but why do conservatives use Valentine’s as the day to honor women — it has nothing to do with women’s honor,” said Sarah Malik, 20, a university student in Lahore. “My honor is at stake when a man in public scratches himself or he inappropriately stares at me or touches me, but how many male university chancellors will dedicate a day to expose this filth in our culture?”

Despite the bans and threats against those celebrating the “day of shame” — as Valentine’s Day is called by conservatives and Islamist groups — people continue to celebrate. Analysts attribute that to the power of romance — and the thrill of defying those who try to squelch it.

Pakistan is awkward with love — thus the obsession with Valentine’s Day,” said Zeresh Saleem, a professor of culture at University of Lahore. “Public displays of affection like lovers’ holding hands is not a sight you’d see in bazaars or restaurants here. The obsession with Feb. 14 is only because the patriarchy dictates that men and women aren’t supposed to show love in public.”

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