In the free-thinking 1970s, a rule endorsed by Karachi University’s (KU) then vice-chancellor, requiring girls and boys to sit three feet apart on campus, earned him plenty of scorn and ridicule. At the time, most students defied the decree openly and several chose to make a mockery of it by bringing a tailor’s yardstick to school in a dramatic attempt to measure distance.
When right-wing groups like the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) indulged in moral policing, a majority of the student body resisted and male and female students continued to mix openly.
Things are very different today. The KU campus – like many others across the country – is visibly more conservative. And the conservatism is more pronounced than ever on Valentine’s Day.
Header: A Pakistan Ministry of Tourism bus takes western travellers on a sight-seeing ride in Karachi (1974). The slogan on the bus reads, "Enjoy the love".
Outfits of resistance
At several public universities in the country, wearing red on campus is unacceptable on February 14.
“Even if you and your male friend are accidentally seen wearing the same colour – not necessarily red – you are in hot water,” a student currently enrolled at KU shares on condition of anonymity.
Owing to this stress, she, like some of her friends, plans to skip university today.
"Teachers used to check bags for Valentine’s Day presents so girls would stand outside the school stuffing their faces with chocolate they had received as presents."
At the University of Peshawar (UoP), there is a similar sense of fear among women on campus. “Most girls will stay at home on Tuesday and those who attend will ensure that they do not wear anything red,” says journalism student Mamoona Akhtar.
Students recall how, two years earlier, a violent clash erupted on Valentine’s Day when students wearing red clothing were attacked.
The UoP student body president, who goes by the name ‘Royal Shakir’, describes the clash between the IJT and Pakhtun Student Federation (PSF). “Shots were fired and later they set each other’s hostel rooms on fire.”
Shakir is affiliated with the left-leaning PSF. Like most days, he is wearing a bright red shawl over his light blue shalwar kameez and matching red sneakers. On his head is a red beret with a communist five-pointed star and in his hands, is a shiny red baton. Unlike him, most students will be very conscious of their dress code come February 14.
Shakir insists that he does not care for Valentine’s Day personally, but will be at the forefront, “defending the right of other students to celebrate it”.
Thorns and roses
To oppose what it deems is out of place in our culture, the IJT will be observing 'Haya (Modesty) Day'.
At Punjab University (PU), IJT representatives started distributing pamphlets for the counter event days in advance.
As the ideologies battle, Haya Day has been an annual event at campuses across Pakistan in the recent past. Every year, IJT activists hold rallies and discourage any Valentine's Day celebrations.
One student recalls how the right-wing group went as far as stopping students from presenting bouquets of flowers to guests speaking at a university event, which happened to fall on Valentines Day last year.
Three students bringing flowers for the guests were stopped by IJT activists at the gate. All attempts to reason with them were futile, claims one of the students, Hossain Raza.
“They did not listen. They snatched the bouquets and hurled threats of dire consequences [at us],” Raza adds.
Another student, Sana Naqvi, says that members of the IJT Women’s Wing begin visiting women’s hostels in the run up to Feb 14, warning them against ‘immoral’ Valentine’s Day activities. “If anyone resists their ideology they get thrashed,” she says, adding that the university administration turns a blind eye to such incidents.
Nazim Furqan Khalil, a member of Punjab University IJT, however, denies the allegation of activists thrashing students or stopping others from celebrating the event.
“Valentine’s Day does not match our culture and social norms,” he says. “We [instead observe] Haya Day all over the country and organise walks, rallies and seminars for awareness,” he adds.
Point of contention
Naeem Khan, the PU’s registrar, tells Dawn that there is no restriction over Valentine’s Day celebration on the campus. Khan is of the view that the Pakistani society has different hues “like a rainbow” and it reflects among students. “We can find students of different ideologies at the campus,” he says, attempting to explain the friction.
A member of Punjab University IJT denies the allegation of activists thrashing students or stopping others from celebrating the event.
Anoosh Khan, a professor of Gender Studies at UoP, argues that Valentine’s Day should be celebrated in ‘culturally appropriate’ ways. “When I was young, Valentine’s Day was associated with platonic love; we would give gifts and cards to our friends and even our parents. Because it was a small affair no one paid much attention to it. Today, it has been unnecessarily commercialised and politicised,” she says.
A student argues that young people have sentiments that are not easily suppressed so outlawing activities such as Valentine’s celebrations promotes a culture of secrecy.
“Teachers used to check bags for Valentine’s Day presents so girls would stand outside the school stuffing their faces with chocolate they had received as presents,” she laughs.
Although society and campuses are growing more polarised with time, there is definitely a considerable percentage of the student body that wishes to celebrate the day.
At the gift shop on campus at UoP, the shelves are lined with bright red cards and mugs proclaiming messages of love. The shopkeeper says the purchase of Valentine’s Day gifts is often done secretly. “Girls buy presents more often than boys,” he says.
The shopkeeper says the purchase of Valentine’s Day gifts is often done secretly.
UoP student Ali Shah says Valentine’s Day has now become a part of youth culture and women have expectations around it. “Men should give presents and roses to their fiancés and girlfriends so they are remembered,” he says with a cheeky smile at his female friend.
When asked if he will be celebrating Valentine’s he laughs and gestures towards his friend who looks away shyly, “we wish to celebrate it but they won’t allow it,” he quips.
Some names have been changed to protect students’ identities.