Why you should care
Single people are not alone in hating Feb. 14.
Annoyed by the deluge of cards and heart-shaped chocolates that is St. Valentine’s Day? Dreading the ludicrously expensive dinners and uncomfortable lingerie? Fear not. Some corners of the world still resist the advance of the forcibly romantic festivity.
Some Muslim countries such as Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia already prohibit the holiday. Now, as Valentine’s fever descends on Muslim-majority countries in Central Asia, some officials have taken it upon themselves to ban it, too. The theory? It undermines local culture and, according to clerics, is antithetical to Islam.
It’s like the Kyrgyz equivalent of Bible Belt populism
— Ted Trautman
In Kyrgyzstan, parliamentarian Tursunbai Bakir Uulu has been calling for a ban on Valentine’s Day for years. According to a local news agency, he called it a “holiday from the devil.” At least one city, Osh, has already forbidden the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day in schools because of its “negative influence on the mental health of children.”
Things are no better for Cupid in Uzbekistan. Many Uzbek religious leaders have condemned Valentine’s Day as a harmful tradition that contradicts Islam. Last year, a number of universities in the country were forbidden from promoting the lovers’ day, and some reportedly asked its students to sign contracts promising not to celebrate. Government leaders told teachers to impose harsh penalties on any students who missed class to go roll around in sparkling wine and rose petals.
Is this about religious purity, or is it just demagoguery? The latter, argues Ted Trautman, an American journalist who lived in Kyrgyzstan for two years: “It’s like the Kyrgyz equivalent of Bible Belt populism.” Valentine’s Day is just as offensive to a moderately conservative Muslim as it would be to a moderately conservative Catholic, he argues.
Uzbek authorities are trying carrots as well as sticks. One plan would replace Valentine’s Day with another, less ludicrous celebration: the birthday of Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan who, conveniently enough, was born on the 14th of February. Under this proposal, instead of feeding each other chocolate-dipped strawberries, sweethearts could attend poetry readings to commemorate the life of their brave ancestor.
Sweethearts and schlock have freer rein in Kazakhstan, where no one is cracking down. Still, authorities are pushing a sort of alternative to Valentine’s Day: Ulttyk Gashyktar Kunine Oray, which means “All Lovers’ Day,” is of recent vintage. Set for April 15, it celebrates two lovers from 13th century Kazakh epic literature. Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, has already added the new holiday to the calendar and suggested school administrations do the same.
Of course, it will prove hard to stop hormonal teenagers from celebrating this monetized bonanza of gifts and sweets. Forbidden fruit tastes sweet, warns Kyrgyz anthropologist Zemfira Inogamova-Hanbury: “If the government bans its promotion, then something new might emerge.” And what government could be more powerful than the convergence of teenage love, teddy bears and the laws of the free market?