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February 14, 2015

The cure for Valentine’s Day


February 14, 2015


Hopefully, the title above has caught the attention of Shahbaz Sharif and all the conservatives who are afraid of Valentine’s Day. The article below is an attempt to assuage their fears. Ambitiously, it will even attempt to persuade them to embrace their fears and convert such symbolic opportunities into material gain.
For political conservatives, their fear is totally understandable. Each February, this is palpable in their philistine messages on blackened billboards advertising the lurking dangers of Valentine’s Day. In anticipation, the cities are littered with coaxing and imploring messages to reject such westernized affect and attitudes. All this is in complete keeping with the rear-guards’ socio-political agenda.
The conservative elite and aspirants seek out ways to capture modernity, siphon off any promises that it holds for the masses, women and minorities, and co-opt it exclusively for themselves. They are then free to redefine and use modernity as a tool (structural and attitudinal) to impose limited access for others while reaping its maximum profits for themselves.
Which is why the conservatives’ rejection of Valentine’s Day makes no economic sense. Intellectually, yes, the sight of the Pakistani metropolises turning February 14 into an urban emo-scape with ubiquitous red hearts can be irritating. To see touchy-feely, dewy-eyed youth who start behaving as if they’re all members of a fly-by-night NGO called Dates Without Borders is admittedly disconcerting to the purists. But, surely, everyone knows that modernity is more than work, social duty and political representation. It’s also about sociability and changing attitudes.
One such acquired modernist attitude was towards treating leisure as a social activity. This offered a refuge from the brutalities that accompanied the modern era and then, thanks to capitalist commercialisation, even rest and recreation got re-packaged for sale.
In the modern period, leisure does not

refer to just any spontaneous populist activity but instead, combined with commerce has given birth to what is referred to as mass culture. The difference between mass and popular culture should be part of the pre-conference orientation for all those apologists who keep defending events such as the content-anaemic literature festivals, by citing the apparent high number of attendees.
Popular culture refers to unofficial practices that have emerged from a (usually pre-modern) tradition and are steeped in spontaneity – events like the now-banned, Basant. (As an aside, the Basant festival was probably doomed from the time it started getting co-opted by officialdom in the first place, which made its death inevitable when it transitioned from the popular and came into a precarious and commercialised form of mass culture). Mass culture is very much a constructed project and modernist enterprise founded on business principles, where the producers of culture profit more than the consumer (Waar, the propaganda movie).
It’s not just that mass culture is guided by money to affect values or, that commercialisation trivialises it. Neither popular nor mass forms are defined by numbers. Both can have high or low number of followers or adherents – the issue is: what is the value of such events and who benefits most from it?
Getting back to the important question of money. Anecdotally, Pakistani purchase and consumption of Valentine products (flowers, candy, restaurants, movies, advertising) has compelled even the more reluctant proprietors to cave in and profit from such surplus affection. As good capitalists, we all know the rule of demand and supply – if no other economic principle. In the US, Valentine’s Day is a billion dollar industry, provoking massive shopping sprees. It’s not just a ‘western’ affect. In Japan, Valentine’s Day confectionary sales make up half of its $5 billion annual sales.
The main appeal here is not for actively supporting or passively endorsing any spontaneous cultural observation. Rather, it is to suggest that premeditated and paranoid rejection of (western/Indian ideas, practices, products) or wholesale embracement of any social attitudinal change (Saudi-sponsored curricula, sermons, fatwas) on the basis of preconceived fears and attempts to control human relations is a mistake. Rather than making such knee-jerk sociological and economic miscalculations, it would be wise to remember that modernity, ideas, consumption patterns, middle-class composition, consumer habits, attitudes and creativity are received and redefined by the time they settle into local contexts.
Perhaps one of the most striking examples of such subversive lessons in this connection may be measured by the Valentine’s Day that followed the assassination of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011. A week before that year’s Valentine’s Day, the Tahaffuz Namoos-i-Risalat Mahaz (TNRM) had announced protest rallies against its celebration, from the site of the Sufi shrine of Data Darbar in Lahore. That wasn’t the real irony.
On that year’s actual Valentine’s Day, 140 people rallied in support of Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, outside Adiala Jail where he was remanded. Some 10 students from a government college joined them with posters, Valentine’s cards and flowers. They handed over flowers and cards to jail officials who said they would give them to Qadri, as students from religious schools shouted ‘Free Qadri!’ Some students reportedly admitted such expression was not “our tradition” and that it was wrong to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but it was “already widely celebrated and the media was full with Valentine’s Day activities.”
Qari Hanif Qureshi, the apparent inspiration for Qadri also said that Valentine’s Day was “not Muslim” and reportedly disapproved of this form of expressing adulation for Qadri but qualified that, “It is wrong to celebrate it, but since these students have come to express their love and support for Qadri, we cannot turn them away.” (Express Tribune, 14/2/2011).
Modernity and its discontents will not necessarily yield the same results no matter what its mimetic appearances. It’s time for Pakistani leadership to assess maturely that, while the capitalist base for innocuous leisure activities and abstractions such as affection and the murderous material, professional, terror activities and hate-inspired expressions may be the same, it is only the latter that kills and maims. Being happy is not a crime but hating certainly can encourage and endorse the same. We have to decide which to focus our censorious energies on.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]




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