Even seemingly frivolous stories can say a lot about the state of the country. Reports that a university in Faisalabad will observe a ‘Sisters’ Day’ on February 14 to negate the influence of Valentine’s Day brings up a lot of familiar debates about culture and identity. Contrary to popular misconception, today’s version of Valentine’s Day has little to do with religion and is traced back to the courtly poetry of English poet Chaucer. It is a simple way for people to express love and admiration, similar to that which can be found in the tales and poems of the Urdu and Persian tradition. Pakistan today is defined by the many influences it has had over the centuries, from indigenous cultures like that of the Indus Valley Civilisation to outside forces like the Arabs of Mohammed bin Qasim to the Mughals and the British colonials. Culture is a living and evolving entity that develops organically and can incorporate ideas from around the globe. It is not something that is static and which must be jealously guarded by the moral brigade.
Even more problematic is the assumption that our women and girls need to be protected by wise male guardians. The university wants to distribute gowns and shawls to women students as if the only role women have to play is to stand silently and cover themselves up. More and more universities are adopting dress codes in the name of culture; these codes seem to only apply only to women. One does not need to celebrate the rampant consumerism of Valentine’s Day to realise that the crusade against it is dictated by a male desire to assert power and put women in what they see as their rightful place. There is also a form of deeply disturbing cultural cleansing at play where even our own traditions, like Basant, are threatened because they are wrongly seen as Hindu. What is really happening is that a few self-proclaimed custodians of culture are petrified by the thought that someone, somewhere may just be allowing themselves a moment to smile. There is enough bad news in the country that any respite should be welcomed, and even celebrated be kite-flying during Basant or giving a loved one flowers on Valentine’s Day.