CAIRO: Whether you’ve chosen to run through the streets professing your joy, or lock yourself in a closet, Valentine’s Day is once again upon us. Viewed by many as a “Hallmark Holiday, as it is called in the United States, named after the country’s largest greeting card maker, cupid has made his mark on lovebirds around the world looking for that special chance to say “I love you.
In a globalized world, it’s difficult to escape the cultural influences of the West, even if it goes against local customs. While roses line the streets of Cairo every year around this time, many aren’t quite clear as to how a man named St. Valentine made such a big impression, good or bad, on the Muslim world. Backlash to the recent phenomenon of Valentine’s Day has occurred in a number of Muslim countries.
“In the last 10 years or so, for the first time, we started having more and more exposure to the West, and we came to be exposed to many things that were new to us, Valentine’s Day is one of them, explains Madiha El-Safty, a sociologist professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “Basically, it’s a business because cards can be sold, presents, parties, people singing, planning and arranging.
In Saudi Arabia, a fatwa has declared the only two legitimate holidays in Islam to be Eid El-Fitr (end of Ramadan) and Eid El-Adha. Saudi’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or morality police as they are more commonly known, bans shops from selling roses in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day. Such measures come in an effort by Saudi officials to rebuff a holiday that contradicts the principles of Wahabi Islam.
Also, in India, an Islamic group known for its fierce opposition to the West, vowed last weekend to stop all Kashmiri couples from observing Valentine’s Day. The group, Dukhtaran ElMillat, or Daughters of Faith, marked their protest against “Lovers Day with a raid on half a dozen shops, confiscating Valentine’s Day cards and ceremonially burning them. Similar raids have been held by radical Hindu groups in India.
In Pakistan, Jamaat AlIslami party, an Islamist organization, has worked incessantly to ban the observance of Valentine’s Day. Its leaders were quoted by news organizations as calling it a “shameful day on which Westerners “are just fulfilling and satisfying their sexual thirst.
Here in Egypt, evidence is everywhere that Valentine’s Day is accepted and embraced by the majority, despite ongoing debates that the holiday is a product of paganism.
Associations with love and fertility date back to ancient times. Old Athens commemorated Gamelion – dedicated to the marriage of Zeus and Hera. Also in ancient Rome, February 15 marked the festival of Lupercus, god of fertility. Priests of Lupercus would, in accordance with purification rituals, sacrifice goats and a dog to the god, and then after drinking wine, they would run through the streets of Rome striking anyone they met with the goat skin. Young women believed that if they came in contact with the goat skin, it would render them fertile.
In the history of Christianity, there are three Saints named Valentine, or Valentinus, which means strong, vigorous and healthy, and several legends have developed around all three men. In one account, history writes that Roman Emperor Claudius II outlawed the marriage for all young men because he believed unmarried men made more able soldiers. Valentine, a priest, defied this ruling and continued to perform marriages. He was executed.
History also writes that Christians under the rule of Claudius II who didn’t change their religion would be crucified, thrown to lions or beheaded. St. Valentine would visit prisoners, pray with them and help them escape safely.
In both legends, it is written that before his own death, Valentine would send letters to his beloved from prison and sign them “From your Valentine.
There is no evidence, however, of any celebration in early histories of Valentine’s Day as a holiday for lovers. In 498, Catholic Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 the Feast of St. Valentine. This, however, was meant to honor the festival of Lupercus.
In the 14th century, the association of St. Valentine’s Day with romance first became evident. Writer Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem Parliament of Fowls, wrote of birds coupling. “For this was on Saint Valentine s day, when every fowl comes there to choose his mate, it read. From then on, it became customary for lovers to exchange notes on February 14, calling one another their “Valentine.
It is believed that in the 19th century, Valentine’s Day crossed over to North America via British settlers. The holiday slowly went commercial around 1847 with the mass production of embossed paper lace made especially for February 14. Through this vision came inspiration. Candy hearts, greeting cards and flowers were produced especially for the holiday. More than a century later, the holiday, known as Valentine’s Day, has transcended borders, and become an international day for celebrating love and affection.