When Pakistan’s media landscape opened up in the 1990s, while I was growing up in the city of Karachi, it meant that for the first time since martial law ended in 1986, private television channels were permitted.
For me, this meant a reprieve from reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Murder She Wrote.” Instead, I suddenly had access to new shows that reflected a transformed country.
In this Pakistan, unlike the one before, men and women interacted with each other. There were love affairs and there were “love marriages.” Karachi’s mostly co-educational universities allowed for male and female students to flirt, fall in love and marry (if they were able to convince their parents).
When the war on terror arrived on a November day in 2001, Pakistan was again under the auspices of martial law. Then-president Pervez Musharraf brought with him a program he dubbed “enlightened moderation.” This meant that the press was mostly free and the onerous rules and regulations of “Islamization” were no longer enforced. The Sept. 11 attacks caught him flat-footed, as had President George W. Bush’s famous ultimatum: “You’re either with us or against us.”
Pakistan chose, at least at the official and governmental level, to be with the United States.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with falling in love or Valentine’s Day, but even as Musharraf kowtowed to the United States, the population, particularly those living along the NATO supply lines, did not. The route that led from Karachi in the south through the country and to Peshawar in the northwest and to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass was now an artery open to attacks. The Taliban and their ilk saw the disruption of this supply line as a way to disrupt the war next door.
At that time, Musharraf insisted that extremists and hardliners were fringe elements. The majority of Pakistanis, he held, were a moderate people, uninterested in hard-line versions of Islam that had seemed to overtake Afghanistan. He promised the country’s full assistance in fighting the war on terror. He opened up Pakistani airspace and military bases, and he promised to hand over noted terrorists to the CIA.
In the decade to come, the decade of terror, drone attacks, along with their perpetual buzzing, would begin to occupy the skies. With drone attacks came terrorist counter-attacks. Existing religious parties, which had been a sort of frail group that never amassed many electoral seats, now gained power, and newly minted militant branches increased their reach. The result was not only what seemed to be a solid decade of constant terror attacks in every major Pakistani city but also a set of restrictive social mores that would, by the time the war on terror waned, utterly transform the country’s visual and sociological landscape.
Love in particular became a target.
When the Taliban rolled into a city, as they did in Swat and many others, they issued several edicts. Dominant among these edicts was the fact that no women were to be seen unaccompanied on city streets or in the market. All women would have to wear a burqa and be accompanied by a male relative. Cellphones and music were banned.
The cellphone part is important. While speedy Internet took time to reach rural portions of the country, cellphones did not. By the time the Osama Bin Laden raid happened in 2011, cellphones were in the hands of half the population and cheaper than the cost of making a single telephone call had been just two decades earlier.
Love was among the more innocuous uses of these phones. Even when a marriage was entirely arranged, it was not uncommon for a groom to send a cellphone along with the customary glass bangles, sweets and embroidered outfit that were gifted to the bride when both sides had agreed to the match. The phone gave the couple the chance to get to know each other a bit, perhaps even exchange sweet nothings and photographs.
If ordinary young people used cellphones and social media to scout each other out, to find ways of meeting and to fall in love, extremist groups used the devices to spread propaganda. Suicide bombs that erupted off the bodies of bombers in mosques, schools, markets and hotels were often detonated by a cellphone.
And even today, on “sensitive” days such as religious holidays or elections, cellphone service is often suspended in Pakistan’s major cities, bringing life and often love, too, to a halt.
Valentine’s Day became popular on both sides of this culture war. Upwardly mobile, educated, middle-class people, exposed to the Internet and eager to partake in what seemed like a staple of the love market in the rest of the world, began marking the holiday in the early 2000s.
Extremist groups quickly realized that the day could serve as a handy recruitment tool. Those annoyed by all the red tinsel and the contrived, not to mention Western (and therefore un-Islamic), nature of the holiday could serve to draw battle lines between the good and bad Muslims of Pakistan.
She was murdered in April 2015. When the killer was later interviewed as to his motive, he confessed he just hated her ideas, one of which was the premise that people should be permitted to fall in love.
As one billboard in the city had put it, “I Am Muslim, I Say NO to Valentine’s Day” showing a hand pushing away a candle and a red rose.
If you didn’t say no to Valentine’s Day, you weren’t really Muslim, according to the hard-line Islamists, and they were everywhere, ready to punish shopkeepers who displayed balloons and cards too visibly in the fire engine red associated with the day.
This year, as the war on terror comes to an end, the climate is different.
The posters that would suddenly show up all over the city, the ones forbidding the celebration of Valentine’s Day are mostly missing. At the same time, and perhaps for that very reason, there seems that there is a lot less of an aura of the illicit, the tantalization of the thrill. One travel agency that I visited was openly advertising Valentine’s Day getaways for couples. Several restaurants had special discounts for the usual prix-fixe meals that are a staple all over the world.
One famous department store was selling religious books and rosary beads at the front of the store and huge heaps of chocolate and candy for Valentine’s Day in the back.
The approach to Valentine’s Day this year seems in an odd way almost routine, like the day had been around forever. That finally, like in other parts of the world, it would be celebrated by some and ignored by others. That it permitted for hugs exchanged with mothers and fathers and children and also romance with significant others.
Terror, it seems, is taking a backseat to love. Love and Valentine’s Day are simply part of a Pakistani February this year, just like cool evenings and an early spring; it was love that lingered as terror, slowly but surely, waned and withered.