The Battle of Valentine’s Day

26 02 2008

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What is it about Valentine’s Day that gets so many people so riled?

The past decade and more has seen the growing popularity of Valentine’s Day in South Asian countries as a festival of romance, specially for the urban youth. And it has also attracted significant opposition, often violent, from religious groups and conservative opinion which have attacked it for destroying our religion(s) and culture with its Christian, Western and commercial character.

Valentine’s Day emerged in late medieval Europe as a day to express romantic love and interest in the opposite sex. Historians trace its origins to erotic Roman festivals which were adopted and adapted by the early Church to suit its own interests by pairing men and women in the congregation into couples in the name of St. Valentine. What is really ironical about this naming is that St. Valentine is supposed to have been a chaste man, innocent of the art of love! By the early modern period, Valentine’s Day practice had changed from the medieval custom of drawing lots to choose one’s partner to being the day when men proposed to women they were attracted to. By the nineteenth century, this festival had lost all its religious significance and had been embellished with all the commercial razzmatazz that marks it even today.

In our South Asian contexts, Valentine’s Day is primarily an urban phenomenon centred around English speaking youth where men buy gifts, flowers and cards for women they fancy and, if already in an love relation, they go out on a date. At best it’s a harmless exuberance of youth and at worst a silly ritual fuelled by the profits of the entertainment and hospitality industry.

So what gets so many people so riled about Valentine’s Day? Every year in India, groups opposing Valentine’s Day break shops with romantic displays, assault lovers in public parks and organise other violent and dramatic protests against its celebration. This year one group forcibly married all couples they found in a public park in a metropolitan city of India and another group blackened the faces of couples it “caught” sitting together in public on Valentine’s Day. I am sure the situation will be similar in Pakistan, if not in specifics but in trend.

Despite this strident and violent opposition to Valentine’s Day, it is interesting that its popularity keeps growing, specially among the urban youth. I would argue that the increasing hostility and growing popularity of Valentine’s Day originate from the same source. This source is the threat that freedom of sexual choice poses to the patriarchal family – a family form which is at foundation of our social relations and power structures.

While different South Asian social structures have had different levels and forms of integrating with the modern economy, there have been two processes strikingly similar in all of them.

First, integration with the modern economy has not been paralleled by the destruction of the traditional social structure based on the community and its replacement by a social structure based on the individual, as happened in Europe. In some areas these traditional communities have remained largely untouched by change while in others they have changed a fair bit, but fundamentally, these traditional communities have remained the foundation of our social structures. Even today our identities are drawn from the religion, region, caste/clan, village and family we belong to. People who do not have even one of these identity markers, or have low level markers, remain on the margins of social power networks. The founding unit of this social structure is the patriarchal family where marriage relations are a matter of complex negotiations and alliance building. Such marriages, necessarily within the limits of religion, region and caste/clan, sustain the given community and strengthen its political power. These marriages reproduce the specific South Asian feudal form of the patriarchal family. The breakdown of this patriarchal family would sound the death-knell for the social structure which sustains our under-developed capitalisms.

The ideological device by which the extant social structure and its family form compel their continuation is by elevating their practice to a moral high level. Arranged marriages and public denial of affection by couples is propagated as the moral approach while “love” marriages and public display of affection by couples is termed immoral. This definition of morality and the shrill pitch at which it is constantly broadcast over society from a hundred thousand sources puts immense psychological pressure on individuals to conform to this moral code. Valentine’s Day, by publically fostering freedom to choose one’s sexual and marriage partner, is a direct assault on this moral code. By pointing to an alternative morality, where romance between couples is celebrated and public displays of affection is encouraged between individuals, irrespective of identity markers, Valentine’s Day is seen as a direct assault on the ideological scaffolding of the extant South Asian patriarchal family. By foregrounding the individual’s right to chose, in this case their marriage and sexual partner, and by giving women a say in determining their life-choices, it threatens the entire social structure.

This brings us to the second point. Despite the continuation of these traditional communities, the working of the modern economy and the market is building up the process of individuation. In spite of the continuation of traditional community identities, it is still the individual who enters the market whether for jobs, goods or services. The nature of the modern economy is also such that individual units (nuclear family) has to live where its bread-earner is based and this leads to a further, de facto, splintering of the patriarchal joint family. Modern education and social associations in the modern economy also engender ideologies which celebrate and privilege the individual.

This process of individuation creates the material conditions for the destruction of the patriarchal family as it exists in South Asia today and therefore of the social structure which this family form sustains. Regardless of the existence of this material condition, the patriarchal family has continued to exist. But it is under unprecedented strain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the burgeoning metropolises and booming small towns of India where people migrate from distant provinces and are rent apart from their community anchors.

Religious and social conservatives rightly see this challenge to the morality of arranged marriage and public denial of affection as the thin edge of the wedge which can unravel the entire edifice of the traditional social structure. Youngsters who celebrate Valentine’s Day despite all the opposition and physical threats also correctly perceive it as a passport to the liberation of their individual souls from the prison of their community. Unfortunately, while the religious and social conservatives are well organised and focussed, the progressives do not realise the historic import of the battle for Valentine’s Day. It is almost as if they are embarrassed to admit their support for the morality which celebrates individual romantic love and encourages public display of affection.

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This article was published in ThePost on 27 February, 2008.

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7 responses

26 02 2008
Jason Whitmen

I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

Jason Whitmen

26 02 2008
Valentine » Blog Archive » The Battle of Valentine’s Day

[…] Open The Dialogue wrote an interesting post today on The Battle of Valentineâs DayHere’s a quick excerpt . What is it about Valentine’s Day that gets so many people so riled? The past decade and more has seen the growing popularity of Valentine’s Day in South Asian countries as a festival of romance, specially for the urban youth. And it has also attracted significant opposition, often violent, from religious groups and conservative opinion which have attacked it for destroying our religion(s) and culture with its Christian, Western and commercial character. Valentine’s Day emerged in late me […]

28 02 2008
Unni

In “Origin of Family”,Engels says

“Full freedom of marriage can therefore only be generally established when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a marriage partner. For then there is no other motive left except mutual inclination. ”

Following Morgan’s treatise,Engels narrates the evolution of family structure which ends in the monogamous family of civilized world. Engels, brushing aside the concerns of a “moral decay” in the family structure and love in a socialist system,says

“What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it. ”

This is the perspective which the Leftists should uphold.

Valentine’s day has become a carnival for the urban youth who belong to petti-bourgeois and bourgeois classes. The TV channels and print media with the same class leanings gives all possible coverage and creates a disproportionate hype around this charade. At the same time right-wing extremists and religious fundamentalists channel their efforts to incite trouble to prove their unflinching puritanism.

It is the property relations and class divisions of this era that determine the nature of any social event and Valentine’s day is no exception.Under capitalism it can neither challenge the property relations which has moulded the traditional caste/clan based family structure nor it can serve the interest of oppressed masses who are lack the material conditions to take part in occasions of this sort.

The progressive husk that is being sought for in Valentine’s day doesn’t exist,thought it can emerge in a socialist system.

I feel there no deliberate need for Left to be more pro-active ,apart from what it is doing now to counter the fundamentalists. We have priority matters in abundance to grapple with.

3 03 2008
janaki

‘love relation’!!! Tch Tch

13 02 2009
zetkin

does the process of individuation through the nuclear family really represent a break with the patriarchal family structure? isn’t it another form of patriarchy that is more conducive to capitalist structures of property and propriety? doesn’t it have an oppressive moral code?

14 02 2009
chhavi

and then there’s a news report today of an English medium school in Bombay that’s renamed V’Day -Matu-Pitru day = mother/father day and the kids are washing their parents feet at a ceremony in school today to show love and respect. One parent went on record to express satisfaction at how the school is celebrating “the right way”. Ayiyiyiyiyiyi

8 12 2014
Unni

When you wrote this many years before I made a comment which was nonsensical to say the least.Specifically in the light of recent events that lead to the Kiss of Love protests and the immense social divide that it has created at least in Kerala,I stand corrected.Thanks for the wonderful insight you have shown here.I wish that more writers and intellectuals from the Leftist spectrum start addressing the issues of democratization of family structures and give emphasis to the absolute and unconditional right of self determination to enter into relationships,before its too late.

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