Champagne bottles are popping and rose petals are fluttering as couples around the world -- from the United States to Hong Kong to South Africa -- observe Valentine’s Day once again.
But not everyone is celebrating. In some places, national politics and government regulations stand in the way of romance.
In Malaysia, Muslims -- who make up 60 percent of the population -- are prohibited from celebrating Valentine’s Day. This year in Pakistan, authorities have warned media outlets to avoid broadcasting romance-themed content on Feb. 14. In India, the government does not condemn the holiday -- but militant Hindu extremists have threatened to defend their strict interpretation of Indian culture by attacking celebrants.
And in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Valentine’s Day celebrations are expressly prohibited. For unmarried couples especially, demonstrations of affection could lead straight to a jail cell -- or worse. And yet, every year, defiance of these rules occurs in secret as rebellious couples refuse to submit to official demands.
In much of the West, Valentine’s Day is often criticized as a vehicle for consumerism -- a chance for greeting card companies and jewelry stores to make a killing, for love to be measured in diamond carats or restaurant ratings.
But when displays of affection are frowned upon, the holiday takes on a whole new meaning.
The origins of Valentine’s Day are hard to pin down. Some historians maintain that the holiday was established by Pope Gelasius I during the late 400s -- right on the cusp of the Middle Ages, during the last gasps of Roman hegemony. By that time, the month of February was already associated with romantic passion; for pagans, it had marked the festival of Lupercalia, which was dedicated to fertility.
Saint Valentine himself is a mysterious figure. But according to the most oft-cited legend, he was a priest who performed secret marriages at a time when they were outlawed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II. As the story goes, the cleric was imprisoned for his defiance and died behind bars.
In the Western countries where the centuries-old holiday is commonly celebrated, its Christian roots are rarely mentioned. Valentine’s Day has become a secular day of celebration -- some would say consumerism -- for couples who want to show their affection and exchange gifts. The National Retail Federation estimates that the average American celebrant will spend more than $120 on the holiday, a sum that includes gifts for partners, family members, friends and even pets.
In the mostly Islamic societies where Valentine’s Day is at least partially banned, its Christian roots are often used as justification. The rationale makes sense if Quranic values are the foundation of the legal system -- especially since the holiday is often celebrated by unmarried couples.
But some would argue that the true motives behind such bans are rooted in suppression rather than morality.
Republic Before Romance
In Iran, Valentine’s Day was not banned until 2011 -- even though the revolution that brought about an Islamic theocracy occurred in 1979.
Hadi Ghaemi was there for that pivotal event; he left his home country four years later, in 1983. At that time, he recalls, Valentine’s Day was not a widely observed holiday. It was only during the last 10 years that the Western traditions -- complete with flowers, chocolates and frilly cards -- picked up steam in the capital city of Tehran.
“Valentine’s Day has become a major event in Iran over the past decade; it is basically a day for lovers. Tehran shops were full of Valentine’s Day paraphernalia until the government took it is a sign of cultural invasion from the West and banned it,” said Ghaemi, adding that the holiday gifts may still be available for lovers who know where to look.
Today Ghaemi is the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; he sees the ban as one of many recent government initiatives aimed at resisting Western influence. By 2011, the regime had already been cracking down on young love for decades -- schools were segregated according to gender, women were obliged to cover their hair in public, and premarital relationships were forbidden. That didn’t stop Valentine’s Day from gaining popularity, but the events of 2009 motivated authorities to crack down more harshly than ever.
That was the year of Iran's Green Movement, which grew in response to the election that saw incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim victory and a second term in office. After the results were announced on June 12, angry protesters suspected a rigged election and took to the streets. It was a failed revolt; more than 5,000 demonstrators were arrested, and dozens lost their lives.
But today, in a country where the majority of the population is too young to have lived through the revolution that first empowered the ayatollahs, dissent simmers beneath the surface.
“Two cultures have developed in Iran: one practiced by the people in private, and one that follows the official narrative,” says Ghaemi. “Everything moves in a dichotomy.”
So while red roses and candy hearts might be hard to find in Iranian stores this Valentine’s Day, there’s a good chance they’ll be exchanged behind closed doors in Tehran.
A similar story is playing out across the Persian Gulf. In Saudi Arabia -- an ally of the United States -- Valentine’s Day celebrants are targeted by a morality-enforcing security force called the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The officers are referred to colloquially as al muttaween -- the volunteers.
There, Valentine’s Day is officially considered a pagan holiday -- and it doesn’t help that premarital relationships are frowned upon by most clerics and many citizens. As in Iran, crackdowns have intensified in recent years.
Carol Fleming, an American former intelligence worker, moved to Saudi Arabia in 2006. She lived with her husband in the capital city of Riyadh.
“My Saudi spouse and I celebrated Valentine’s Day regardless of where we were located, in or out of Saudi,” she said. “He'd usually try to take me to Bahrain so we could be open in our celebration and love for one another.”
Though celebrating love in Saudi Arabia isn’t easy, Fleming notes that many people -- mostly liberal-minded citizens in urban areas -- manage to find their way around the law.
“There are Saudis who do adhere to the ruling that Valentine’s Day is not to be recognized, but more each year view it as a special time to demonstrate love," she said. "Some families will exchange cards or special gifts with one another. Of course it is more difficult for young unmarried couples due to the gender segregation rules, but that does not stop the determined. They'll use email, SMS text or even a brother or sister to deliver a special gift.”
Couples aren’t the only ones skirting the rules. After all, Valentine’s Day is a traditional money-maker for Western societies, and Saudi retailers aren’t blind to that fact. Those who dare to defy officials are raking it in -- the price of roses and heart-shaped candies tends to skyrocket around mid-February.
And for the recipients of this contraband, the gesture can be even more romantic due to the risks.
“Saudis use much ingenuity to present a gift or have a special date,” says Fleming. “You truly can't stop love, whether married or single!”