The banners were hoisted near Safari Park, a meeting spot for lovers in Pakistan’s sprawling megacity of Karachi. In curling Urdu script, they chastised men for celebrating Valentine’s Day.
“Don’t exploit your daughters by adopting European civilization,” the Salafi youth group urged. “Let Islam penetrate your personality — adopt modesty.”
Up the road, to Karachi University, another conservative Muslim youth group vowed there’d be no celebrating the day of love on their campus — with the apparent support of many students.
“It’s banned,” Fareeha Bangash, a 17-year-old English major, said of Valentine’s Day. The idea of men and women exchanging gifts — and perhaps more — before marriage was unthinkable in a conservative culture that frowns on any mixing, Bangash said. Just to be seen with a man would be regarded badly by her community, she said. “It raises many questions.”
Valentine’s Day is an annual culture war in Pakistan. It’s a cause célèbre for religious conservatives, a chance to assert themselves in a crowded political scene, while claiming the mantle of guardians of Pakistan’s Islamic identity.
Their cause received a boost recently. On Feb. 7, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority sent a notice reminding broadcasters not to “promote” Valentine’s Day. It followed a ruling by the Islamabad High Court last year — on Feb. 13 — that banned Valentine’s celebrations in public spaces and government offices. That was in response to a petition by a citizen who argued the day went against Islam. In 2016, Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain urged citizens to avoid celebrating the day.
The ban has fans among those offended by Muslims celebrating a Christian holiday — it originated honoring a martyred, third-century Roman priest — and those overwhelmed by the fraying of traditional values.
“People give flowers to strangers and forget their parents,” said Mohammed Rashid, a 27-year-old civil servant. “Why should people forget their own traditions?”
And at Karachi University, the spokesman for a conservative student group said they were creating a new tradition for Feb. 14: Modesty Day.
They had lectures planned for students: “We tell them that modesty is part of our religion,” said Owais Shaikh, 22, an Islamic studies major and a spokesman for the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba Pakistan student organization.
Shaikh argued Valentine’s Day degraded women, whose reputations could be ruined by mixing with men before marriage. “We should give women respect, not celebrate a day that degrades them.”
The student group’s activities went beyond conferences, he said. If they saw men and women walking together, group members would demand to see their ID cards — to check if they were married. If not, they could call university authorities. The public confrontations could be humiliating.
“Students in this campus — after Allah — they fear the Talaba,” Shaikh said, referring to his group.
A few students expressed dissent — among them Shahzeib, a 24-year-old master’s student. “Some people think Valentine’s Day crosses limits,” he said. “They may kiss and have sex. But I think sex is natural, and it can’t be stopped.”
He hoped to celebrate, but he was unhappily single. “If I can find somebody to make me celebrate, I would. If she gives me a flower, then I’ll give her a flower.”
But the appearance of a religious victory was misleading, said Safia Bano, a philosophy lecturer. Pakistan is enduring generational change — nearly half the population of more than 200 million is under 18. Love marriages are becoming common. People are being influenced by global trends on social media, she said. “Slowly and gradually, people are accepting different norms.”
The pushback by traditionalists and conservatives suggested they were losing control. “The backlash is happening because there is change. This is a way of asserting a presence,” Bano said.
She said their fears focus on the question: “What kind of society will [we] become if we allow this? This is the fear that society experiences when its traditions are weakening.”
Outside the reach of the patrolling Islamists of Karachi University, and despite the media ban, some residents appeared to have neatly folded Valentine’s Day into local culture. Although conservatives fretted that it encouraged premarital mixing, married Pakistanis seemed to celebrate it without reservation. They weren’t strict about keeping to Feb. 14 itself, either. Many celebrate it in snatched free time before the day. And they heavily endulged in flower giving, in a culture where floral garlands and elaborate flower designs adorn shrines, weddings and even corporate gatherings.
In the upscale Dolmen Mall, couples photographed themselves before a wall of red and pink flowers. One couple pushed their son out of the frame when he tried to join in.
The chocolate shop sold heart-shaped boxes. The pharmacy offered a 25 percent “Valentine’s Day Promotion.”
At flower stalls near a bridge, workers stripped thorns off roses, arranging them into $6 bouquets. “All types of people come,” said Waqas Tasawar, 28. Karachi’s working-class residents came and bought a cheaper, single rose, he said.
On a littered swath of beach where Karachi locals splash in the Arabian Sea, Zeeshan Anwar, 20, walked with three young women, all in black robes, headscarves and face veils.
He bought chocolates — each “like a kiss” for his girlfriend, Anwar said. Upon hearing the discussion, his girlfriend Nayla, one of the young women, shrieked quietly and walked away. He called her on his cellphone, unsuccessfully convincing her to return. “She’s shy,” he said.
Mayda, 22, walked on the beach, clutching a foil-wrapped red flower that her husband Saad, 22, purchased for a dollar from a seaside hawker.
“It’s our first Valentine’s Day,” Saad said. “We didn’t celebrate it before marriage, because we didn’t know each other — we had an arranged marriage,” he said. It’s a traditional setup where parents put forward marriage candidates, and their children are expected to agree to the match. It worked out well, Saad said. “Thank God! May it always be so!” exclaimed Mayda.
A man selling camel rides passed by. When we asked the salesman — Shuaib Nawaz, 23 — what he thought of Valentine’s Day, he thought he was being judged as a disapproving, conservative Muslim.
“Oh, please don’t think I’m one of them,” he said, patting his bushy beard. “I just grew this after marriage.”
Nawaz said that before he married his childhood sweetheart, he always bought her Valentine’s Day gifts. Now they are married with two girls. “She’s mine now, I don’t have to buy her gifts,” he said with a laugh.
They have other problems, he said: He gestured at his camel, decorated in tassels and mirrors, and said he gets $4 to $12 a day for rides — not enough to eat sometimes. Valentine’s Day brought back happy memories, he said. “It’s a real joy.”
Nearby, employees of the Finance Ministry waded out of the water. The oldest, Mazhar Hussein, 57, bearded and gray, said celebrating Valentine’s Day was forbidden. “Flowers are only for your wife,” he said.
How many people felt that way? “People like me are the majority,” Hussein said — but he was interrupted by his colleague Nasser Khan, 40.
“This man is old!” he exclaimed. “And Pakistan is young.”
Khan said his own girlfriend was traveling 186 miles on a train, from Hyderabad to Karachi, to join him on Valentine’s Day. “She just wants to give me flowers.”
“It’s a part of our tradition now,” Khan said of Valentine’s Day. “It’s a Pakistani tradition.”