Private Portraits: A Pakistani Valentine

Private Portraits: A Pakistani Valentine

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – A Pakistani Valentine

This is the fifth post in Rafia Zakaria’s series at Dissent, “Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.” Read the previous post here.

February 14, 2012

There are two questions everyone in Pakistan seems to ask of each novelty they encounter: ?Is it Western?? and ?Is it Islamic?? On the surface, these criteria are the scales on which the value of everything from eyebrow arches to architecture can be assessed; if the answer to the first question is no and the second yes, whatever is in question can be enjoyed guilt-free.

All would be well if this arithmetic of piety and anti-imperialism could always yield foolproof answers. Valentine?s Day is one example of this arithmetic?s limits. When a young country inevitably finds itself hungry for a good time, it can lead something to be popular that is both Western and un-rooted in religion. Valentine?s Day was everywhere in Pakistan this year, from the thousands of flower shops to television shows and bakeries. On the evening of the thirteenth, parked outside a gift shop that sells nuts, chocolates, and perfumes wrapped to order in varieties of colored cellophane and matching tinsel, I watched a parade of customers troop in and out. A middle-aged woman purchased a gold tray of walnuts, a young boy sheepishly carried out some cards hidden in a brown paper bag, and a gray-bearded gentleman lugged out an enormous basket containing a sampling of all the store?s offerings. It was a convincing cross-section of lovers.

On the day itself, religious scholars emerged on television with their rucksacks of denunciations, angry fingers wagging at red-clad female talk-show hosts unfazed by their ire. A few nodded sympathetically before handing the microphone to the representative ?young person,? several of whom reminded the audience that the Prophet Mohammad fell in love with his first wife.

This historical detail may be debated, but it points to the real issue at stake with Valentine?s Day in Pakistan: the possibility of love in a society where roles and responsibilities dominate the sphere of the intimate. The discomfort with Valentine?s Day, and efforts to Islamize it, are only the gloss on what is primarily an emotional conundrum?a private sphere where ideas of love (and consequently of choice) are up against ideas of duty and familial welfare. The issue emerges every time marriages are arranged and households set up. The opponents of Valentine?s Day want the choice of a spouse to be based on kin relationships, income status, and the family?and not on less tangible things like love, attraction, and affection. The former prioritizes stability, with the couple as one unit of a multi-part machine; the latter elevates compatibility and inescapably unpredictable feelings and passions. And it is not just the future that it at stake; if Pakistan?s young are permitted some freedom to love, it means that the marriages of yesterday based on the happiness of many instead of two are somehow lacking, devoid of love. Change and fear have always been bedfellows.

In the midst of ebullient reports of about the sale of flowers and cakes on Valentine?s Day, the Pakistani media also reported the story of five female fetuses found in a dumpster in a Karachi slum. While the story was broadcast again and again, on every television channel and each newspaper, few bothered to mention that the fetuses were found in laboratory jars, that they were soaked in formaldehyde, or that they were most likely improperly discarded specimens from a medical laboratory. Instead, the reports, dished out between recipes and talk shows, led viewers to make a sinister connection between the women reveling in the hedonism of Valentine?s Day and the unwanted, discarded babies–a glimpse into the lurid nightmare of moral profligacy that would descend over the country if intimate emotions were left unchecked.

Read the sixth post: An Exercise in Visibility

Photo by Asim Bharwani, 2011, via Flick creative commons