RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – The Saudi woman, swathed in black with only her eyes showing, circled a huge, red teddy bear, wondering if the plastic flowers stuck in the crook of its arm were too tacky.
She wanted this Valentine’s Day to be perfect. She ordered 100 red roses to be delivered to her husband of a few weeks, bought him the largest-size bar of his favorite chocolate and planned to surprise him with a dinner party at her parents’ house.
But there was one hitch: She had made the plans for Feb. 12, thinking that was the day the rest of the world marked Valentine’s.
Her confusion was not a surprise in a country where Valentine’s Day is prohibited and religious authorities confiscate red items from gift stores and call the occasion a Christian celebration true Muslims should shun. The woman, like others interviewed for this story, knew she was flirting with the law and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The kingdom’s attitude toward Valentine’s Day is in line with the strict school of Islam followed by the kingdom for a century. Like Valentine’s Day, all Christian and even most Muslim feasts are banned in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, because they’re considered an unorthodox creation Islam doesn’t sanction.
Beyond the ban, it’s a challenge for couples to be together on Valentine’s or any other day because of strict segregation of the sexes. Dating consists of long phone conversations and the rare tryst. Men and women cannot go for a drive together, have a meal or talk on the street unless they are close relatives. Infractions are punished by detentions.
The muttawa, or religious police, mobilize a few days before Feb. 14, making the rounds of gift and flower shops. As Feb. 14 approaches, the flush of red fades.
Every heart, every rose and every item that’s red or that suggests love and romance descends underground, to the black market, where its price triples and quadruples. Red flowers are hidden in back rooms.
Salesmen and waiters avoid wearing red; entrepreneurs whose stores maintain a red hue risk days in jail.
In religious lectures at schools, teachers and administrators warn students against marking the occasion, noting Saint Valentine was a Christian priest, according to an educational supervisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Saint Valentine is believed to have been a 3rd-century martyred Roman priest or bishop. Why the holiday became a celebration of lovers isn’t clear, but the theories are it stemmed from his Feb. 14 feast date falling close to a pagan love festival or that it was because mid-February was seen in Europe as the time of year when birds start mating.
The supervisor said that on Valentine’s Day last year girls lining up for daily morning prayer were inspected from head to toe by teachers looking for violations of rules that ban wearing or carrying any red item on the day.
Ribbons, boots, jackets, bags and pen holders with a hint, stripe or pattern in red, burgundy and hot pink were thrown into a heap, and the school called the girls’ mothers to pick up the offensive items, the supervisor said.
Badr al-Buraidi, assistant to the head of the religious awareness department at a hospital, told Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper people have to be “persuaded that foreigners do not mark (Muslim feasts).”
“Why should we celebrate their feasts?” he was quoted as saying.
Despite the restrictions, Valentine’s Day has caught on, partly due to satellite TV, where the occasion, like other holidays, is worked into the course of a series.
Shoppers who know where to look can find plenty of Valentine gifts: hearts that make kissing sounds and say “I love you” when squeezed, white teddy bears sitting on a red heart, lips touching, elaborate gift arrangements with “beating” hearts fitted with blinking lights and baskets of plastic red fruits.
Lingerie stores have rows of red, lacy lingerie, with one shop displaying a sheer negligee and the picture of a heart next to it.
In most cases, the gifts are not presented on Valentine’s Day. A woman may not get permission from her parents to go out that night, and stores don’t want to be saddled with the incriminating items when the muttawa begin making their rounds. Shops either deliver the gifts or call recipients a few days early and ask them to pick up their presents.
Asked how long he planned to keep the gift items on display, one salesman said: “Until there’s a change in the situation,” referring to a possible muttawa raid.
Restaurants also are warned against creating a Valentine’s atmosphere. One waiter, looking at his red apron and red placement mats, said he worried what the muttawa’s reaction would be if they dropped by on Valentine’s.
At the store, the Saudi woman said that because she was aware of the difficulties, she had ordered the 100 roses a week in advance.
Asked if she still wanted to mark the occasion Feb. 12, she said: “Yes. I can’t wait two more days.”