By Raha Izadi, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
In Tehran, despite the continuous clamour of anti-western slogans, one western tradition is gradually becoming a local institution, securing its place in the informal calendar of Iranian society. On February 14th, lovers exchange big crimson hearts as boys and girls - the same in Iran as elsewhere - celebrate Valentine's Day.
Although Sharia law, which dominates in Iran, does not allow relationships before marriage, young people are breaking this taboo and creating their own lifestyle, influenced in many ways by the West.
Last year, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who was deputy under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, posted messages of congratulations on his weblog on Valentine's Day. This was certainly novel; however, the moderate cleric's jovial tone did not appeal to many people and attracted some harsh criticism.
The government wants to make traditional Iranian rituals and festivals part of UNESCO's world calendar, but given the appeal of Valentine's Day among Iranian youth, perhaps it should spare a thought for February 14th .
Indeed, it is hard to find a young person in Tehran who has not bought a gift or sent a love letter. In central Tehran, Mirzay-i Shirazi Street, famous for its shops selling Valentine gifts, has been full of crowds of young people since the beginning of February. Here you can find many ways to show your love - soft toys (red, naturally), gift cards, perfume and foreign chocolates are all typical presents.
On the day itself, young people usually find a cosy café where they can spend some private time together, while the Islamic government's strict morality police turns a blind eye.
According to the Chinese calendar, 2009 is the Year of the Cow. So this year many young Iranians have bought their boyfriend or girlfriend something cute and cow-shaped (made in China), costing anything from 5-6 US dollars right up to 70 dollars. Some cows are so big they would not even fit in the trunk of a car.
Shadi, a 23-year-old girl who lives in Hafez Street in Tehran, has been into many different shops on Mirzay-i Shirazi Street looking for candles that are better than ones from the market.
"I do not have a boyfriend this year, but my brother has just met a girl and asked me to help him buy a Valentine's gift," she said.
In the gift box, Shadi settles on, there is a doll and some chocolate, as well as candles and clothes.
Of course, not everybody buys this much - it all depends on the length of a relationship and how much people can afford. A longer relationship means fewer gifts; and people with less money give more cultural presents, such as books, films or CDs.
Valentine's Day and its customs have also had an impact on the Iranian media. The day before Valentine's Day, the ILNA news agency published a report about the market in Valentine gifts. But out of the 50 young people it interviewed, not one knew anything about the background of the day.
"Valentine's Day is the day of lovers. I don't care about its meaning or history," a girl called Samira told ILNA.
There are, of course, some young people who do not think Valentine's Day is at all important - either because they find it immodest or because it is all too much of a cliché.
Ali, a civil engineer who has been with his girlfriend for two months, is one of those. He laughs and says, "We are intellectuals. Whenever we feel we want to show our love and affection, we just buy a gift. We would not have to wait for a particular day to do it."
Ali and Bita, his girlfriend, believe that most young Iranians only celebrate Valentine's Day because they want to keep up to date.
The fashion for celebrating Valentine's Day is not restricted to young people in the capital. Afsaneh and Mohammad are from Arak, a city in the centre of Iran. They have been married for two years and have bought each other Valentine gifts.
"I like Valentine's Day. It is an opportunity for me to show my love to my husband," said Afsaneh.
In Islamic Iran, even those whose love has been legitimised by marriage still welcome Valentine's Day. February 14th, thanks to the western tradition, puts legitimate and forbidden love on the same level.
Religious people, however, have not let the matter rest. They have made an effort to replace Valentine's Day with an Islamic version called The Day of Affection.
Iranian fundamentalists believe Valentine's Day spreads promiscuous behaviour by recognising pre-marital relationships - but it is not only they who are unhappy. People who are passionate about ancient Iranian customs are also hostile.
They believe there is nothing wrong with celebrating a day for lovers, but they maintain there should be a genuine Iranian equivalent. A few years ago, this group suggested February 17th, known as Sepandarmaz Day, as a substitute for Valentine's Day. In ancient Iranian culture, Sepandarmaz is the goddess of green earth and is a symbol of fertility, so the day is a celebration of women.
However, all the signs suggest that the efforts of the authorities and those interested in Islamic traditions or ancient Iranian customs have not been very successful. The busy shops of Mirzay-i Shirazi Street in the first two weeks of February tell their own story.
On February 14th, young people buy Chinese dolls or French perfume for their boyfriend or girlfriend; they have dates in cafés or restaurants; they drink cappuccinos and eat pizzas. The big crimson hearts in shop windows make the atmosphere in Tehran much like that in other cities of the world.
Raha Izadi is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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