Hearts, flowers, and kisses are part and parcel of Valentine’s Day, which has been celebrated with displays of romance and affection for centuries in some Western nations. In an Ipsos survey of people in 28 countries around the world, a whopping 55 percent of respondents said they planned to mark the occasion with their partner. But for people in some parts of the globe, celebrating the holiday—which marks the feast day of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr—is taboo or even illegal: Religious edicts and concerns about the spread of Western commercial culture have quashed the annual February 14 festival of lovers.
From bans to mass arrests and even threats of forced marriage, here’s where it’s been discouraged, or downright dangerous, to embrace the day.
For decades, February 14 was just another day in Saudi Arabia, which banned Valentine’s Day as antithetical to Islamic notions of propriety. Though some people cautiously exchanged gifts and flowers in February, they ran the risk of a run-in with the nation’s religious police until about five years ago.
The change came after Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman stripped the nation’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a department once charged with enforcing strict religious norms, of many of its powers in 2016. Before that, people who dared to celebrate the holiday were often arrested, and shop owners were prevented from selling Valentine’s Day goods.
Since then, reports Al Arabiya English, Saudis have openly embraced the holiday and the prices of flowers and heart-studded gifts—long inflated because of the secrecy surrounding the holiday—have fallen.
The holiday is a bone of contention in Pakistan. In 2016, the nation’s then president Mamnoon Hussain urged Pakistanis to avoid Valentine’s Day, telling a gathering of mostly female students that the holiday “has no connection with our culture.” The remarks, which were widely construed as a sign of support by the nation’s Islamic hardliners, spurred a 2017 ban by the nation’s high court and an edict to remove all traces of Valentine’s Day from public spaces and to ban merchandise, advertising, or promotion of the holiday in the media.
That hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for some Pakistanis. Despite police interference and surveillance, romantic rebels find ways to acquire flowers and give their lovers sentimental gifts for the holiday, though most do so under wraps.
“People are still going to go out and do their thing and have fun — maybe just in different ways,” one scofflaw who planned to make his wife a romantic breakfast on February 14 told the New York Times in 2018. “You can’t ban love.”
Malaysian authorities have also done their best to do away with the holiday. In 2005, the nation’s Fatwa Council, which interprets Islamic law and makes decrees, declared Valentine’s Day antithetical to Islam because it had “elements of Christianity.” Though Christian groups urged the council to reconsider, claiming there is little connection between the modern Valentine’s Day and Christianity, the ban persisted.
Religious authorities upped the ante after that, when they began mass arrests of couples suspected of celebrating the holiday. In one incident in 2011, authorities in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur targeted couples in budget hotels and public parks, the BBC reported, calling the holiday synonymous “with vice activities.”
Religious authorities in Iran have turned to the public for help prosecuting those who celebrate the holiday in defiance of strict religious laws. The government has long banned symbols of the day, warning that they are “anti-cultural,” and condemned Valentine’s Day as a sign of immorality and Western decadence.
But Valentine’s Day has grown so popular that some Islamic hardliners now encourage observing an ancient Iranian holiday, Sepandārmazgān, instead. The holiday, which falls on February 23, is known as a Persian day of love honoring Spandarmad, a Zoroastrian deity who represented a loving wife.
That hasn’t kept many Iranians from celebrating the Western holiday in secret too, despite a ban on the production and sale of Valentine’s cards and other trinkets.
A notable anti-Valentine campaign focused on social media platforms, where 518 million Indians were estimated to be active as of 2020. In 2015, a fringe far-right Hindu political party threatened to force people who made public displays of love on social media for Valentine’s Day to marry, and threatened to force anyone it found celebrating the holiday in public into impromptu nuptials, too.