On February 14th, lovers and sweethearts around the world will exchange gifts and cards to mark Valentine’s Day. For many it is a harmless day to encourage some romance. However, in some parts of the world, actively celebrating St. Valentine’s Day is frowned upon and even banned.
Cool down in Cambodia
This year, the Khmer Times reports that the Cambodian Education Ministry has issued a directive reminding students that Valentine’s Day is not a public holiday, nor a day for romantic pursuits which go against Khmer tradition.
The directive, signed by Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, said some students mistakenly think it is day for couples to be together and go on dates. “This day is not a Khmer traditional holiday and over the last few years Valentine’s Day has become more popular, making youths forget about studying and commit acts which go against Khmer tradition and shame their families,” it said.
Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng appealed to youths and workers not to view 14th February as a day for romance, saying “Valentine’s Day is not about a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship but about love for parents, teachers, families, grandparents and friends.”
The ban in Pakistan
In 2018, it was announced that celebrations of Valentine’s Day in Pakistan were banned after a court ruled the holiday to be un-Islamic. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued an advisory warning against any media coverage or endorsements of Valentine’s Day. ‘No event shall be held at the official level or at any public place,’ the advisory said.
Valentine’s Day was first banned in 2017 by the Islamabad High Court after a citizen complained the holiday was a western cultural import and un-Islamic. This ban is a result of the increasing popularity and commercialisation of Valentine’s Day in recent years in Pakistan.
What happens in other countries?
Cambodia and Pakistan are not the only nations to frown upon Valentine’s Day.
In Malaysia, where over two-thirds of the population are Muslim, Valentine’s Day is regarded as immoral and has been outlawed for Muslims by a fatwa ruling since 2005. In 2011, 80 Muslims were arrested and detained after morality police officers raided budget hotel looking for unmarried Muslim couples.
Iranian state officials have described Valentine’s Day as ‘decadent Western custom’ and in 2016, the Iranian police reportedly released a directive telling Tehran’s coffee and ice cream shops trade union to prevent any gatherings in which men and women could exchange Valentine’s Day gifts or they could be found guilty of a crime.
Indonesia is the country with the world’s largest Muslim population and while the secular government has not banned celebrations, Indonesia’s influential Islamic clerical body, the Ulema Council, banned Valentine’s Day in 2012 following years of protests that claimed the holiday was contradictory to Islam’s culture and teachings.
In Saudi Arabia, a severe ban has been strictly enforced by religious police, with red flowers removed from florists by members of the religious authorities. Though the country is liberalising under crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and in 2017 there were no restrictions issued on red flowers by the Committee of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Will a ban work?
There is no doubt that, even in the West, Valentine’s Day has become too commercial for some and it does have its roots in Christian saints, which makes it a difficult sell for some religious countries.
It should be noted that the source of Valentine’s Day is usually attributed to two different people during early the early period of Christianity, but neither involves any spiritual or religious actions* and for once, there is no obvious link to a pagan tradition; so despite being named after a Christian saint, this is a very non-religious holiday.
* The uncertainty about the Christian aspects of the festival meant that it was removed from the Catholic Church’s calendar in 1969.
The problem is that banning something only makes it seem more attractive and also perceived more favourably, which means it needs to be prohibited with severe punishments to be enforced, when a lighter touch to stop people from commercialising a day to be romantic is probably the more appropriate response.
And even in those countries which have severe punishments for violating the ban, a black market has emerged to sell Valentine’s gifts.
How to take the Valentines out of Valentines Day
Arguably a more effective option than imposing outright bans is to continue to educate people about the negative connotations of Valentine’s Day, making it socially unacceptable for those who follow certain religions to observe the customs of Valentine’s Day, rather than directly punish them. There are plenty of people around the world who would agree with that approach, and don’t see why people should be forced to express their love on a single day of the year.
And maybe Valentine’s Day is losing a bit of love – according to the US National Retail Federation, this year a little more than half of those under 55 plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day. This has fallen compared to the same survey in 2009, when 72 percent of adults aged 18-34 and 65 percent of those 35-54 said they planned to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Another solution is to look at what happens in Mexico, where Valentine has been diluted to be just one aspect of a day dedicated to ‘love and friendship’. While people still follow the traditional Valentine’s Day customs of giving flowers and sweets to their romantic partners, it is also a day to show appreciation for your friends and the people you care about in general.