Valentine’s Day is a relatively new addition to the Iranian calendar, but a popular one. In the last few years, stalls selling pink and red heart-shaped cushions and teddy bears, chocolates and flowers have become commonplace in the run-up to February 14, as have declarations of love in cards and messages, in person and online. The day has been enthusiastically embraced by Iranians in many bigger cities, the young in particular.
The Iranian authorities are less than impressed. In 2020, state-controlled media reported a ban had been enacted on the sale of red balloons on Valentine’s Day, and days ago traders in Tehran reported being warned off selling Valentine’s Day gifts by the police. Though the celebration Valentine’s Day is not banned outright in Iran, these low-level, petty measures clearly show there is some official resistance to its widespread adoption.
Why did Valentine's Day take off in Iran? And why would the entrenched political system have a problem with it? IranWire spoke to Nayereh Tohidi, a professor and former chair at the Department of Gender & Women Studies, California State University, and Nazanin Moali, a California-based clinical psychologist and sex therapist, to find out where this apparent tension comes from.
February 14, or Bahman 25 on the Iranian calendar, is the day when according to Christian lore, a priest named Valentine was executed for supposedly helping Roman soldiers to marry when they were forbidden from doing so by their Christian faith at the time. The first Feast of St Valentine to commemorate the “martyr” priest was held by order of the then-Pope more than 200 years later. Today, many people around the world mark the anniversary of his execution by celebrating their own romantic relationships through gifts and declarations of love.
For several years now the holiday has grown in popularity in Iran, especially among young women, who often use the day to celebrate their platonic friendships as well as emotional and sexual relationships. But the event has some powerful opponents: amongst others, the Public Places Supervision Office, a special arm of Iranian law enforcement, has clamped down on any public displays of affection.
Just a few days ago a shopkeeper in Tehran told a citizen journalist that the Public Places Supervision Office had sent out a letter banning the sale of “products known as Valentine's Day gifts” in the capital, declaring that this rule would be enforced wherever officers saw fit. Despite the restrictions, the shopkeeper said, there was a queue of mostly young shoppers at his door when he opened up on February 13.
Professor Nayereh Tohidi told IranWire the growing importance of Valentine’s Day in Iran was a clear sign of the times. "The fact that many young women are celebrating this day whether they are in a romantic relationship or not shows that they are becoming more aware. Iranian women have discovered themselves and care more about respecting their own desires. Until a few years ago, the general perception of women [in Iran] was that they had to give up their desires and be self-sacrificing. But now, single women know it doesn’t matter if there is no man in their life: we can appreciate and love ourselves. There is self-confidence and self-reliance there, and it's admirable.”
Nazanin Moali, a qualified sex therapist and clinical psychologist, says Valentine’s Day also has an empowering quality for couples in Iran too. “In long-term relationships, everything can come to feel routine, and the excitement declines. To be happy in relationships we need to feel seen and appreciated by our companions. Events like Valentine's are a great opportunity to rekindle that; people in couples consciously focus on and pay attention to their partner.”
For women in particular, Moali said, Valentine’s Day can also be a catalyst for sexual fulfilment by encouraging them to actively think about sex and sexual desire. “People need to prepare their minds in order to have sexual desire. This is rarely the case for women in cultures like Iran, for reasons of tradition. These thoughts are like the seeds we have to plant in the garden so that we can enjoy its growth and flourishing later. Occasions like Valentine's Day are important because we think about them beforehand and plant those seeds in our minds.”
In Iran, Moali says, long-standing societal biases and the ruling clergy’s religious edicts encourage women to consider themselves as passive sex objects, without their own initiative. In Iranian jurisprudence, a woman’s marital and conjugal duties are framed in terms of “obedience” rather than enjoyment, spontaneity or mutual consent. In the socio-cultural sphere, women who think and behave otherwise are often considered “indecent”.
By turning the conversation to mutual love and appreciation, Valentine’s Day, Moali believes, might be going some way to disrupt the imposed order by giving women a greater sense of emotional and sexual agency. "In a society where there is a negative view of sex, rituals and days that promote sex for enjoyment rather than for reproduction are often suppressed. The goal is to reduce sexual desire so that people stay in long-term partnerships.”
Public Expressions of Love Despite Oppression – or Because of It?
Officials in the Islamic Republic have never formally barred citizens from marking Valentine's Day. On the contrary, pro-government media outlets have criticized the anti-Valentine’s Day policies of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, including bans on flower sales in the run-up to the day of love. But localized incidents up and down the country indicate that in the Islamic Republic, too, the festivities are less than welcome.
In an interview with Eqtesad News in February 2020, the head of the Iranian Variety Shop Traders' Union said: "The Public Places Supervision Office wrote a letter to the union [telling members] to refrain from buying and selling balloons in the markets on [Valentine's Day]. Public notices were installed in the shops. As such, the sale and purchase of balloons by union members is prohibited until further notice."
The year before, the NAJA special police unit wrote to cafes in Tehran, warning proprietors that young girls and boys were not allowed to give one another flowers, chocolates or dolls on their premises. The memo was entitled "Countering the Promotion of the Decadent Culture of the West". A similar communique was also sent to tourist offices, barring them from conducting any special Valentine's Day events.
Nayereh Tohidi notes: “The Islamic Republic wants to encourage the ideological hegemony of Islamism and ‘Islamic’ traditions. It is afraid of anything that is non-religious, secular or global. Gender awareness, the development of feminist discourse, bodily freedom, love, and happiness are all things that the ruling political system of Iran stands against. Iranian rulers are afraid of the beauty of youth, and suppresses the treasures of friendship, happiness and music. This system denies love because it wants to be in control of everything – unless it is love in the context of marriage and concubinage.”
Moreover, Tohidi believes, even an event as innocuous as Valentine’s Day can encourage a sense of solidarity between young people because of the repressive political environment in which it is being marked. “People taking the initiative frightens the government, even if it is in celebration of love. This is the case for all authoritarian and ideological regimes. The Soviet experience was very similar to what the Islamic Republic wishes to implement, which in practice it cannot."
Despite the recent economic hardships and new, unabashedly conservative government, many young Iranians still celebrate Valentine's Day with enthusiasm. Tohidi says widespread use of the internet since the 2000s and access to information on everyday life overseas has fuelled the trend toward public displays of affection in Iran, which are made more potent by “rejection of oppression” particularly among the middle classes. "The people, especially the youth, are moving towards everything that is joyful and beautiful, and that gives them control. Now in images surfacing from Iran, even women in full chador and men with traditional appearances are seen shopping for Valentine's Day."