Love it or hate it, Valentine's Day is about women's rights

It may be a lame Hallmark holiday, but Feb. 14 is still a time when the fissures in gender relations get exposed in uncomfortable ways.

Published February 14, 2008 11:03PM (EST)

In remembrance of one or two martyred 13th century saints who somehow came to legitimize some pagan love rituals, Valentine's Day is back, more politically inflected (and, depending on who you are, offensive) than ever.

Is it strange that a holiday so seemingly innocuous generates so much controversy? After all, it's not about a savior rising from the dead after an execution (Easter) or a massacre avoided (Passover) or a day the earth was almost poisoned (Festival of Shiva). It's about love. But in an era of globalization, mass consumerism and shifting gender roles, it's a holiday increasingly rived with conflict.

As noted earlier today in Broadsheet, V-Day began promisingly on the "Today" show when Jane Fonda, promoting her appearance for the 10th anniversary of "The Vagina Monologues," made the mistake of mentioning the title of her monologue, which just happened to be "Cunt." Last year, the anatomical word vagina caused a brouhaha, leading one Florida theater to change the sign on its marquee to "The Hoohaa Monologues." This year V-censorship is equally absurd: The Seattle Weekly reports that the Seattle Times refused to run a poster for the play, produced by the National Council of Jewish Women at the Museum of History and Industry, no less. The offending image? A red petal heart shape with a crenelated crevice -- alluding to another organ heart shapes can be based on.

While our own culture continues to wrestle with the verboten V-words, far-flung countries are battling the increasing encroachment of this pseudo-Christian, indubitably Western holiday. The Hindu reports that, in Kashmir, the radical women's group Dukhtaran-e-Millat (known for terrorizing women they deem immoral) raided Srinagar's restaurants, asking lovers to leave. Radical Hindu groups in India are protesting the holiday as "a rotten imported culture thriving on the neo-rich with easy money to squander." Fair enough. But one can't help assuming that in a country of arranged marriages, the rise of Valentine's Day is also a sign of women's romantic emancipation.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are both considering banning the holiday. The Kuwaiti government promised to crack down on "indecent celebrations and practices," as well as any "immoral behavior" associated with Valentine's Day celebrations, while Saudi's religious police are enforcing a ban on red flowers in the capital of Riyadh. According to Arabian Business, a study of 3,195 Arabs from 11 countries showed that most believe Valentine's Day is only for Westerners, with 46 percent contending that the holiday undermines Islamic beliefs. Despite such hesitance about the holiday itself, other numbers show that the Western idea of romantic love is gradually seeping into the culture. This year 72 percent of participants considered themselves to be romantic -- 10 percent more than last year.

And Valentine's Day wouldn't be recognizable without two requisite stories: the jocular editorial crawling with stale stereotypes about how men hate the holiday but women exact their revenge unless guys cough up the romance on cue, and the study story, which counts the dollars men spend on a holiday that, according to the aforementioned editorial, they despise.

Where does that leave us? Love it or hate it, after peeling off the sparkling consumer packaging, Valentine's Day has everything to do with women's rights and freedoms. In some countries, its very presence is a sign of women choosing whom they marry and wanting to get to know them first. Here its relationship to our value reflects the ambivalence about male-female relations -- every year we hear an earful about men feeling forced to court women with flowers, jewelry and sweets. Either way, it's still a day when the fissures in gender relations get exposed in uncomfortable ways. Not terribly romantic, but fascinating nonetheless.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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