14 Feb 2016

No love lost over St Valentine's Day

9:54 am on 14 February 2016

Pakistanis have been urged by their president not to observe Valentine's Day, the romantic holiday that hardline Muslim clerics want banned.

President Mamnoon Hussain criticised Valentine's Day as a Western import that threatened to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan.

His remarks came after a district in north-western Pakistan banned Valentine's Day celebrations.

Pakistani demonstrators protest against Valentine's Day in Karachi on 13 February 2016. Officials have blasted the dat as "vulgar and indecent".

Pakistani demonstrators protest against Valentine's Day in Karachi on 13 February 2016. Officials have blasted the dat as "vulgar and indecent". Photo: AFP

Despite its roots as a Christian holiday, Valentine's Day had gained popularity among Pakistanis, with flower vendors reporting booming sales.

Pakistani media had reported Islamabad wanted to ban Valentine's celebrations as an "insult to Islam", but city officials said such a rule would be unenforceable.

Earlier this week the local government in Kohat, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told police officers to stop shops from selling Valentine's Day cards and items.

Kohat district was run by a religious political party and bordered Pakistan's conservative tribal areas.

Meanwhile, the Peshawar local council also passed a resolution to ban celebrations of what it called a "useless" day.

Kohat district administrator Maulana Niaz Muhammad told the BBC: "Valentine's Day has no legal grounds, and secondly it is against our religion, therefore it was banned."

While giving cards and flowers was not in itself a bad thing, linking this to a specific day was not appropriate. Such practices could encourage obscene behaviour, Mr Muhammad said.

However, officials in both places later said the bans had been discarded or ignored as they were unpopular.

Earlier this week, there were unconfirmed media reports that Valentine's Day gifts had been banned in the capital Islamabad - although this was subsequently denied by the government.

Valentine's Day a "festival of obscenity"

The issue of St Valentine's Day was a polarising one in Pakistan, a country where it had only become widely marked in recent years.

In the run-up to this year's festival, one conservative newspaper described it as a "festival of obscenity", and asked if Pakistanis would next start celebrating the Hindu Diwali or the Christian Christmas.

In past years conservative social groups, who viewed the day as a festival of immorality detrimental to traditional marriage, had declared the day to be "shameless".

Renowned civil society activist Sabeen Mahmud once set up a demonstration with slogans including "Karachi says Yes to Love". (Last April, she was killed in a drive-by shooting, although not necessarily for that particular issue.)

In neighbouring India, Valentine's Day also garnered opposition, usually from Hindu conservatives who said it was alien to Indian culture and - as argued by Pakistani Muslims - contrary to traditions such as arranged marriages.