Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post by Saadia Faruqi. Saadia is an interfaith activist, blogger for Tikkun Daily and The Islamic Monthly, and a speaker on American Muslim issues. She lives in Houston, Texas and is currently writing a collection of short stories set in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi
I Don’t Want To Be Your Valentine
Today is a special day for Americans, a day when we celebrate love and commitment and other emotions important to the human psyche. Today is Valentine’s Day. You may ask, what am I doing writing about such a sexually exploitative and commercialized holiday on a Muslim blog? Good question. As Muslims we often feel that things that are wrong/forbidden/haram must be swept under the mat and ignored. We forget that by doing that, we not only lose an opportunity to share the beautiful teachings of Islam with others, but also run the risk of misrepresenting and misappropriating genuine issues.
For many years, my standard mantra every February 14th has been, “I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.” Although such a response to the fleeting question by a friend, neighbor or co-worker worked fine in years past, it just doesn’t fly with more stubborn audiences, such as kids. As a mother, I have struggled with redefining many of my previously black-and-white policies in light of the fact that children need more than those two colors. Their worlds are, and should be, filled with rainbows, and a black-and-white response to anything is unfair to them. Last year I wrote about a particular struggle on Thanksgiving and my attempts to educate my children and family in a loving, moderate way.
The fact is that refusing to acknowledge such a universal celebration like Valentine’s Day is no longer feasible in these internet-ready times when nothing can remain hidden for long. The fact is that we Muslims live in the real world, with very real temptations, and celebrating this day with the rest of our countrymen and women seems a very easy task. The fact is that with Muslim economic capacity growing each year, more and more companies are recognizing our buying power and marketing tastefully to us. We are being sold flowers, candy, balloons and food in the guise of modernity and capitalism. We are being attacked in such a beautiful way by advertisements that we don’t even realize we are being fooled into losing our traditions and values. Even Muslim countries are now celebrating Valentine’s Day in an effort to be seen as modern, hip and anti-extremist.
My Main Concern
But my major concern as an American Muslim mother is my children. Classrooms across the United States, elementary in particular, begin decorating in hearts and flowers from the first day of February, and students come home every day this month talking about Valentine-related topics. My preschooler daughter, an avid artist, only wants to draw hearts these days, and her class is having a party today in which parents are expected to bring snacks and gifts for each child. It amazes me that although February is Black History Month, her school has done nothing to teach her about this important aspect of our national history for a full thirty days, while she breathes and eats Valentines all month long.
In such a situation, my response cannot be a refusal of Valentine’s Day. With my children growing up in this land of excess, I can’t afford to ignore a holiday that is pushed in front of their faces and encourages them forcefully to dream of the opposite gender as if nothing else matters. I can’t afford to let them learn about love and affection and even sex from someone else, because I’m afraid of what they’ll learn and how it will affect their faith. So I have to address Valentine’s Day no matter how distasteful it seems to me, and address it in a way that doesn’t make me resemble the evil step mother who wouldn’t let Cinderella go to the ball. Because we all know that is exactly what Cinderella did as soon as she was alone.
In today’s world, parents can no longer police their children, nor should they. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t act like the mullahs in Muslim countries who proclaim Valentine’s Day to be haram, or governments to threaten punishments to anyone celebrating this holiday. I can’t lay down the law in my home in such an extreme manner, because it’s impossible to control my children when they leave the house and go to school or visit their friends. What I can do is explain in their language why Valentine’s Day is opposed to Islamic values of respect and modesty. For my second-grader it may be easy, but for my preschooler, religion doesn’t make sense yet. Everything is a question, every rule is followed by why not? If you can kiss me, why is kissing on TV bad? If you can say I love you to me, why can’t I say it to my friend at school who just happens to be a boy? It’s frustrating and scary and interesting all at the same time.
So today I won’t keep her at home because of the school party, even though my instinct tells me to. I will simply tell her this: love is a wonderful thing, but it’s a very special thing. Show your love to God; express your love to your parents; draw a heart for your grandma. If you must celebrate Valentine’s Day, do it with those who genuinely love and care for you, who are part of your life. Know that love is not an experiment, and it’s based on commitment, not attraction. You can kiss dad, because he loves you the most, but not any other boy. But the condition is that you don’t wait for February 14 to do these things, but you do them every day. That’s a much better portrayal of love than Valentine’s Day could ever be.