As thousands of Pakistanis prepare for Valentine’s Day, right-wing groups have threatened to disrupt events marking the occasion and warned shop-owners of dire consequences if they sell merchandise related to the festival of love.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, has threatened to close shops stocking Valentine’s Day-related wares. It has also said it will monitor events at restaurants and clubs across Pakistan.
The threats by Pakistani groups mirror similar diktats issued by hardline groups in India where couples have been attacked and humiliated in the past in different cities including Mumbai.
The popularity of Valentine’s Day in Muslim-majority Pakistan increased manifold with the proliferation of privately owned TV and radio channels and the advent of the internet, said Shahida Kazi, who teaches media sciences at Karachi’s Ziauddin University.
A decade ago, Kazi said, Valentine’s Day was celebrated only by the elite, usually in urban areas. “It was so selective, no one took notice of it,” she said. “Now thanks to broadcast and social media, we see it being marked by young and old all over the country.”
Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad account for the largest celebrations, including dinners in restaurants, gatherings for youngsters, carnivals and private parties.
Last year, a Valentine’s Day fiesta at a park in Karachi was attacked by activists of the Quran Academy, a seminary in the upmarket Defence area.
Seminary students attacked couples, broke up equipment and detained some girls and contacted their parents. Faisal Manusi, the nazim of the seminary, said the students acted on their own. “We do not encourage violence but this was too much for them to see and keep quiet,” he said.
This year too, religious parties are gearing up for a battle. Maulana Aziz of the radical Lal Masjid in Islamabad announced on Friday that students of his seminary would check for events marking Valentine’s Day across Islamabad.
In the past, groups of stick-wielding students from the all-women Hafsa Academy, run by Aziz’s wife, attacked couples and shut shops and restaurants while police watched helplessly.
Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced this week he would have flower shops and restaurants closed on the eve of Valentine’s Day to avert unpleasant incidents. But soon after, he retracted his statement and said the capital would not shut down because of threats from a small minority.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, however, does not see itself as a minority.
“We represent the sentiments of the majority of the population,” said Osama Bin Razi, a member of the Jamaat’s central committee. Opponents said in the past, the Jamaat used its infamous Thunder Squad, a group that usually uses violence to harass opponents, to attack revellers during New Year’s celebrations.
It is expected the same tactics could be used on Saturday. Already, flower sellers say members of several groups have visited their outlets to insist on them being closed ahead of Valentine’s Day.
This has in no way dampened sentiments. Sales of flowers and chocolates have increased and prices too have risen. “A rose we buy for Rs 50 on a normal day sells for Rs 500 on V-day,” said Afsana Azfar, a resident of Islamabad.
Most restaurants have registered a sharp rise in bookings. Mahnoor Niazi, who works for the Pearl Continental Hotel, said most restaurants in the chain are booked well in advance. “Almost everything is full now,” she said.