BACK in the 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 derision in the relatively liberal era. At the time, most students defied the decree openly and in fact several chose to make a mockery out 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 [both male and female students] resisted and continued to flock together on campus.

However, things are very different today. The KU campus — like many others across the country — is visibly more conservative, particularly on February 14, as wearing red on campus is unacceptable on Valentine’s Day.

“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 studying at KU shares on condition of anonymity. To avoid falling victim to a scandal of sorts, she and friends plan to skip university today.

At the University of Peshawar (UoP), there is a similar sense of fear among women on campus. “Most girls will stay home on Valentine’s Day and those who show up will make sure that they don’t wear anything red,” says a student of journalism, Mamoona Akhtar.

Two years ago, the students recall, a violent scuffle broke on Valentine’s Day as the students wearing red were attacked.

The UoP student body president, commonly known as ‘Royal Shakir’, narrating the incident shares that the clash broke out between the IJT and the Pukhtoon Students Federation (PSF): “After an exchange of fire, they set each other’s hostel rooms ablaze.”

Shakir, affiliated with the left-leaning PSF, is wearing a bright red shawl over his light blue shalwar kameez and matching red sneakers. His head is covered with a red beret with a communist five-pointed star and a shiny red baton in his hands. Unlike Shakir, most students will be very conscious of their dress code on February 14.

Shakir says although he doesn’t celebrate the day personally, he will defend the right of other students to celebrate it.

To hinder the practice from being observed, the IJT will be celebrating Haya (Modesty) Day across campuses. At the Punjab University (PU), IJT representatives distributed pamphlets for Haya Day weeks before.

One student recalls how the IJT stopped students from presenting bouquets of flowers to guests speaking at a university event, which happened to fall on Valentine’s Day last year.

“They [IJT] did not listen. They snatched the bouquets and hurled threats of dire consequences [at us],” says Hossain Raza, a student.

Another student, Sana Naqvi, says prior to February 14 members of the IJT Women’s Wing conduct frequent visits to the women’s hostels, warning them against celebrating Valentine’s Day terming it ‘immoral’.

“If anyone resists their ideology they get beaten up,” she says, adding that the university administration turns a blind eye to such incidents.

Contesting the allegation, Nazim Furqan Khalil, a member of IJT at PU, denies that IJT activists thrash students or stop 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.

Naeem Khan, the university’s registrar, tells Dawn that there is no restriction over Valentine’s Day celebration on 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 between groups.

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.

“Teachers would 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, talking about the impact of restricting expression of love and friendship and promoting a culture of secrecy.

Although the society is 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.

A student of Peshawar University, Ali Shah, says Valentine’s Day has now become a part of the youth culture and girls have developed 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 Day, 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.

Published in Dawn February 14th, 2017