MUNAFIQS SECRETLY CELEBRATE VALENTINE'S DAY IN ARABIA
- Despite religious restrictions, Saudis mark Valentine's Day
By DONNA ABU-NASR
Feb. 13, 2005
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In gift and flower shops across Saudi
Arabia, the flush of red has started to fade.
Each year shortly before Feb. 14, the country's religious police
mobilize, heading out to hunt for -- and confiscate -- red roses,
red teddy bears and any signs of a heart. In a country where
Valentine's Day is banned, ordinary Saudis find they must skirt the
law to spoil their sweetheart.
The Valentine's Day holiday celebrating love and lovers is banned in
Saudi Arabia, where religious authorities call it a Christian
celebration true Muslims should shun.
The kingdom's attitude toward Valentine's Day is in line with the
strict school of Islam followed here for a century. All Christian
and even most Muslim feasts are banned in the kingdom, the
birthplace of Islam, because they are considered unorthodox
creations that Islam does not sanction.
Beyond the ban, it is a challenge for unmarried couples to be
together on Valentine's Day or any other day because of strict
segregation of the sexes. Dating consists of long phone
conversations and the rare tryst. Men and women cannot go for a
drive together, have a meal or talk on the street unless they are
close relatives. Infractions are punished by detentions.
Valentine's items descend underground, to the black market, where
their price triples and quadruples. Salesmen and waiters avoid
wearing red. Though taboo, Valentine's Day still gets a fair amount
of attention in Saudi society.
"Female voices demand the release of the red rose," read a headline
in Sunday's Asharq al-Awsat. Women complained to the paper no one
had the right to ban flower sales.
Sheik Abdullah al-Dakhil, head of the religious police, known as the
muttawa, in Thumama, a town outside Riyadh, told Al-Eqtisadiah
newspaper that "despite awareness campaigns and the confiscation of
flowers, chocolate and other items, there were 15 infractions" for
Valentine's Day indiscretions last year.
In religious lectures at schools, teachers and administrators warn
students against marking the occasion, noting Saint Valentine was a
Christian priest, according to an educational supervisor speaking on
condition of anonymity.
Saint Valentine is believed to have been a 3rd-century martyred
Roman priest or bishop. Why the holiday became a celebration of
lovers is unclear, but some theories say it stemmed from his Feb. 14
feast date falling close to a pagan love festival or that it was
because mid-February was seen in Europe as the time of year when
birds start mating.
The supervisor said that on Valentine's Day last year, girls lining
up for daily morning prayer were inspected head to toe by teachers
looking for violations of rules that ban wearing or carrying any red
item on the day.
Ribbons, boots, jackets, bags and pen holders with a hint, stripe or
pattern in red, burgundy and hot pink were thrown into a heap, and
the school called the girls' mothers to pick up the offensive items,
the supervisor said.
Badr al-Buraidi, assistant to the head of the religious awareness
department at a hospital, told Al-Eqtisadiah that people have to
be "persuaded that foreigners do not mark (Muslim feasts)."
"Why should we celebrate their feasts?" he was quoted as saying.
Despite the restrictions, Valentine's Day has caught on, partly due
to satellite TV, where the occasion, like other holidays, is worked
into the programming fare.
Shoppers who know where to look can find plenty of Valentine gifts:
hearts that make kissing sounds and say "I love you" when squeezed,
white teddy bears sitting on a red heart, lips touching, elaborate
gift arrangements with "beating" hearts fitted with blinking lights
and baskets of plastic red fruits.
Lingerie stores have rows of red, lacy lingerie, with one shop
displaying a sheer negligee and the picture of a heart next to it.
In most cases, the gifts are not presented on Valentine's Day. A
woman may not get permission from her parents to go out that night,
and stores do not want to be saddled with the incriminating items
when the muttawa begin making their rounds. Shops either deliver the
gifts or call recipients a few days early and ask them to pick up
Asked how long he planned to keep the gift items on display, one
salesman said: "Until there's a change in the situation," referring
to a possible muttawa raid.
Restaurants also are warned against creating a Valentine's
atmosphere. One waiter, looking at his red apron and red placement
mats, said he worried what the muttawa's reaction would be if they
dropped by on Feb. 14.
As the holiday neared, a Saudi woman, swathed in black with only her
eyes showing, circled a huge, red teddy bear at a shop, wondering if
the plastic flowers stuck in the crook of its arm were too tacky.
She wanted this Valentine's Day to be perfect. She had ordered 100
red roses to be delivered to her husband of a few weeks, bought him
the largest-size bar of his favorite chocolate and planned to
surprise him with a dinner party at her parents' house.
But there was one hitch: She had made her plans for Feb. 12,
mistakenly thinking that was Valentine's Day. Asked if she still
wanted to mark the occasion then, she said in an excited
voice: "Yes. I can't wait two more days."