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Love It (Or Hate It), It's Valentine's Day

A vendor in the central Bosnian town of Zenica sells heart-shaped cushions with proclamations of love for 1 euro each.
Heart-shaped chocolates in heart-shaped boxes. Pink Cupids on heart-shaped greeting cards. Lip-shaped pillows. Silky lingerie. It's Valentine's Day, and shop windows, billboards, and television ads remind you of it wherever you go. Or so it seems.

Valentine's Day, a mostly Western and Christian-inspired holiday, has, indeed, spread all over the world. Today, valentines will be exchanged in Orthodox Christian areas of Eastern Europe, anchors of the Muslim world like Iraq, and Hindu India.

But some countries -- such as Iran, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan -- are taking steps to limit it or even ban it.

Love is not the issue in Uzbekistan, where authorities have reportedly forbidden the celebration of holidays that are alien to Uzbek culture. Instead, sweethearts in the country are encouraged to celebrate St. Zaxiriddin's Day in honor of renowned poet and statesman Zaxiriddin Muhammad Bobur.

Bobur, the descendant of Genghis Khan who once ruled the Ferghana Valley and is buried in Kabul, is considered to be a symbolic equivalent of the martyred Christian saint, Valentine. Bobur's 529th birthday will be marked today with readings of his love poems.

Iran has been an acerbic critic of Valentine's Day, which it deems un-Islamic. Last year, amid the rising popularity of the holiday among the country's youth, Tehran banned all cards and other symbols of the day under the threat of legal action.

WATCH: The National Museum of Decorative Folk Art in Kyiv is trying to keep local Ukrainian customs associated with Valentine's Day alive. Staffers at the museum demonstrated local traditions, including decorating eggs, selecting scrolls with written fortunes, and folk dances. (Video by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)
Ukrainians Honor Local Traditions On Valentine's Day
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RFE/RL journalist Mania Mansour says Valentine's Day has grown in importance in Iran, mainly among middle-class youths. Mania says there is a thriving Valentine's Day industry in Iran and that it is not unusual for more affluent Iranians to splurge on lavish gifts, which can range from name-brand goods to automobiles.

"Valentine's Day has become very important in Iran over the past two decades, especially among the young, middle-class generation," Mansour says. "Shops are full of red hearts, glasses with imprinted red hearts, chocolates, and valentines. Flower shops are very busy on February 14, too, and rich youths also sometimes buy expensive gifts."

Western Backlash

Unlike in Iran, the backlash in the West against Valentine's Day is motivated not so much by religion but by a movement against mercantile excess.

Anticonsumerist activists see Valentine's Day as aimed more at selling merchandise than celebrating love. Such a stance, known as anti-valentinism, has taken diverse forms, from protest marches to concerts to satirical cards known as "anti-VD" cards.

Attempts to replace an increasingly popular Valentine's Day with local quasi-equivalents have also taken place in Europe.

In Romania and Moldova, the ancient pre-Christian holiday Dragobete, which is marked on February 24, has resurfaced in the past two decades. Dragobete takes its name from a mythical young man -- handsome and married -- and symbolizes the time when birds nest and mate.
Huge red bears and other soft toys are prominently displayed for sale by a vendor on Valentine's Day in Baghdad.
Huge red bears and other soft toys are prominently displayed for sale by a vendor on Valentine's Day in Baghdad.
Even in places where Valentine's Day has gained new admirers, it has also drawn fresh scorn. In India, Hindu extremists have in the past vowed to attack couples who celebrate the day. And Kazakhstan's Spiritual Board of Muslims posted a statement on its website this week criticizing the holiday as a "blind imitation of the West."

Iraq Embraces The Holiday

All this is not to say that St. Valentine does not have his passionate supporters.

In Kyrgyzstan, young advocates planned to stage a "love and friendship" action inside Bishkek's Museum of History. Organizers say the event is intended to oppose Islamic statements against Valentine's Day. On the square outside the museum, a separate rally dubbed "Kyrgyzstan, I Love You" will be held with a nod toward the holiday of love.

And in war-wracked Iraq, some go to great lengths to celebrate Valentine's Day as a sign that society is opening up.

This year, Valentine's Day has arrived in Baghdad in a big way, facilitated by the spread of the Internet, mobile phones, and satellite television. Street corners in Baghdad are teeming with young people sifting through mountains of plush teddy bears and heart-shaped purses.

Taghrid Yasser, who owns a flower and gift shop in central Baghdad, says sentiment is high.

"These days are very distinctive, especially among young men and women. They are very highly motivated to buy teddy bears and red roses," Yasser says. "We have displayed many goods and turnout is very high. Most are buying gift baskets containing a red card and a teddy bear and a rose."

Iraq, a Shi'a-majority country, seems to be following in the footsteps of other Muslim states, such as the United Arab Emirates, where the celebration of a holiday bearing the name of a martyred Christian saint is not only allowed but welcomed. It means big business.

Radio Farda's Mania Mansour and Radio Free Iraq's Salih Muhammad Salih contributed to this report