Love conquers all but tradition
Young people shop for Valentine’s gifts in a mall outside Tehran on Valentine’s Day. Newsha Tavakolian / The National
TEHRAN // While Iranian teenagers have lately chosen Valentine’s Day to express affection to their loved ones, many older Iranians, who find the popularisation of the day an undesirable sign of surrender to western influences, are trying to revive an ancient festival in its place.
Yet, there are others who decry the notion of either celebration.
In the pre-Islamic calendar of Iran, Feb 19 was dedicated to Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility and earth. Ancient Iranians celebrated the day by offering gifts to women, serving them and exempting them from all work for the day. The tradition died away, except among Iran’s small Zoroastrian minority, about a millennium ago.
Hamid Ehteshami, 28, an accountant, is one of many Iranians with strong nationalistic feelings who cherishes the ancient culture of Iran and is trying to revive such forgotten ancient festivals as the Day of Sepandarmaz.
“Valentine’s Day draws from the western tradition. It has nothing to do with our culture or religion. I can see no point in celebrating it when we have a day dedicated to love in our own culture,” Mr Ehteshami said.
“This day has every characteristic to make it a good occasion for celebration of love.”
Advocates of celebration of Valentine’s Day and those who want to replace it with the Day of Sepandarmaz have been employing the very modern mediums of e-mail and SMS messaging to spread the love.
Hadis Tavvakoli, a 21-year-old student of medicine, who has celebrated Valentine’s Day for several years, saw a post on a friend’s blog about the Day of Sepandarmaz recently and received messages about it.
“The name sounded very odd, but as I read more posts on the subject I realised I liked it even more than celebrating Valentine’s Day. I am proud of our own culture so I will be celebrating this day from now on.”
Some young people said they do not find anything wrong with celebrating Valentine’s Day. They are just happy there is an occasion for expressions of love.
“Love is a universal thing. It knows no borders. Whatever its origins, Valentine’s Day has provided a good opportunity for us young people to show our love to our loved ones,” said Haleh Sobhani, 24, a student who had bought a heart and chocolates for her boyfriend.
The celebration of Valentine’s Day is recent in Iran. Only a decade ago few people had heard about it. Today, however, it is popular even in some smaller cities, where, like in the larger ones, shops sell Valentine’s tokens and coffee shops are filled with young people exchanging gifts of Teddy bears and red roses.
Valentine’s is frowned upon though tolerated by the religious establishment, which views it as yet another aspect of the “western cultural onslaught” destroying the country’s religious and national identity.
The state-run media of Iran generally keep silent about the celebration of Valentine’s Day and of the Day of Sepandarmaz, to avoid promotion of un-Islamic practices. And an unwritten law dictates shops avoid using signs with the word “Valentine”.
“Unlike a few years ago there is no need to use written signs in window displays any more. Customers now recognise the tokens without any signs and buy them like hotcakes,” said Arash Taghavi, 32, who runs a gift shop in an arcade in a western Tehran neighbourhood.
Although there is no law against celebrating either day and the legal authorities by and large ignore the events, sometimes Iran’s “moral police” confiscate Valentine’s items or impose a fine on businesses seen as promoting western customs.
Voices of anger rise sometimes from those who fear the silence of the authorities will lead to a loss of Islamic values. “The Valentine’s Day fever strikes the unmarried youth, not the married and committed, and it promotes moral corruption,” Resalat, a conservative newspaper, wrote before Feb 14. Cultural authorities, it said, were “in hibernation”.
Still, the days are popular because people seek happy occasions to celebrate communally.
“We used to have many happy occasions to celebrate together long ago, but the number of happy public occasions in our culture has come to a minimum now. People feel a need for such communal expressions of happiness. Valentine’s Day or the Day of Sepandarmaz fulfil that need,” said Shahla Ezazi, professor of sociology of Tehran University.