In gift and flower shops across Saudi Arabia, the flush of red has started to fade.
Each year shortly before Feb. 14, the country’s religious police mobilize, heading out to hunt for — and confiscate — red roses, red teddy bears and any signs of a heart. In a country where Valentine’s Day is banned, ordinary Saudis find they must skirt the law to spoil their sweetheart.
The Valentine’s Day holiday celebrating love and lovers is banned in Saudi Arabia, where religious authorities call it a Christian celebration true Muslims should shun.
Challenge for unmarried couples
The kingdom’s attitude toward Valentine’s Day is in line with the strict school of Islam followed here for a century. All Christian and even most Muslim feasts are banned in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, because they are considered unorthodox creations that Islam does not sanction.
Beyond the ban, it is a challenge for unmarried couples to be together on Valentine’s Day or any other day because of strict segregation of the sexes. Dating consists of long phone conversations and the rare tryst. Men and women cannot go for a drive together, have a meal or talk on the street unless they are close relatives. Infractions are punished by detentions.
Valentine’s items descend underground, to the black market, where their price triples and quadruples. Salesmen and waiters avoid wearing red. Though taboo, Valentine’s Day still gets a fair amount of attention in Saudi society.
“Female voices demand the release of the red rose,” read a headline in Sunday’s Asharq al-Awsat. Women complained to the paper no one had the right to ban flower sales.
Red items banned
Sheik Abdullah al-Dakhil, head of the religious police, known as the muttawa, in Thumama, a town outside Riyadh, told Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper that “despite awareness campaigns and the confiscation of flowers, chocolate and other items, there were 15 infractions” for Valentine’s Day indiscretions last year.
In religious lectures at schools, teachers and administrators warn students against marking the occasion, noting Saint Valentine was a Christian priest, according to an educational supervisor speaking on condition of anonymity.
Saint Valentine is believed to have been a 3rd-century martyred Roman priest or bishop. Why the holiday became a celebration of lovers is unclear, but some theories say it stemmed from his Feb. 14 feast date falling close to a pagan love festival or that it was because mid-February was seen in Europe as the time of year when birds start mating.
The supervisor said that on Valentine’s Day last year, girls lining up for daily morning prayer were inspected head to toe by teachers looking for violations of rules that ban wearing or carrying any red item on the day.
Ribbons, boots, jackets, bags and pen holders with a hint, stripe or pattern in red, burgundy and hot pink were thrown into a heap, and the school called the girls’ mothers to pick up the offensive items, the supervisor said.
Badr al-Buraidi, assistant to the head of the religious awareness department at a hospital, told Al-Eqtisadiah that people have to be “persuaded that foreigners do not mark (Muslim feasts).”
“Why should we celebrate their feasts?” he was quoted as saying.
Despite the restrictions, Valentine’s Day has caught on, partly due to satellite TV, where the occasion, like other holidays, is worked into the programming fare.
Shoppers who know where to look can find plenty of Valentine gifts: hearts that make kissing sounds and say “I love you” when squeezed, white teddy bears sitting on a red heart, lips touching, elaborate gift arrangements with “beating” hearts fitted with blinking lights and baskets of plastic red fruits.
Lingerie stores have rows of red, lacy lingerie, with one shop displaying a sheer negligee and the picture of a heart next to it.
In most cases, the gifts are not presented on Valentine’s Day. A woman may not get permission from her parents to go out that night, and stores do not want to be saddled with the incriminating items when the muttawa begin making their rounds. Shops either deliver the gifts or call recipients a few days early and ask them to pick up their presents.
Asked how long he planned to keep the gift items on display, one salesman said: “Until there’s a change in the situation,” referring to a possible muttawa raid.
Restaurants also are warned against creating a Valentine’s atmosphere. One waiter, looking at his red apron and red placement mats, said he worried what the muttawa’s reaction would be if they dropped by on Feb. 14.
As the holiday neared, a Saudi woman, swathed in black with only her eyes showing, circled a huge, red teddy bear at a shop, wondering if the plastic flowers stuck in the crook of its arm were too tacky.
She wanted this Valentine’s Day to be perfect. She had ordered 100 red roses to be delivered to her husband of a few weeks, bought him the largest-size bar of his favorite chocolate and planned to surprise him with a dinner party at her parents’ house.
But there was one hitch: She had made her plans for Feb. 12, mistakenly thinking that was Valentine’s Day. Asked if she still wanted to mark the occasion then, she said in an excited voice: “Yes. I can’t wait two more days.”