It's February and heart-shaped decor, bouquets of flowers and cards with soppy messages are popping up around us to celebrate the modern festival of love: Valentine's Day.
We may as well just hand our significant other some cash and scrawl a note on it saying: "Here is some money to prove I love you." Anything more than that is just window dressing. "I can identify red roses when I enter a florist!!" or "These chocolates that you probably won't eat are in an unusual, limited edition heart-shaped box so I paid double the price compared to the rectangular one!"
And yet somehow we fall for it, including yours truly. Last year, Husband and I spent time, money and effort buying cards for each other, only to discover that we had in fact bought each other the same card. We laughed at the duplication concluding that we were drawn to the same sentiments because "That's love!" And the romance in the air made us feel as though we were meant for each other, even after all these years. Yes, I know, pass the sick bucket.
Yet we enjoy the celebrations, reminding ourselves of what binds us together, usually with nothing more than a home-cooked meal and some sweet nothings. If you are squirming at the cheesy superficiality of it, then I point you to the other extreme reaction to Valentine's Day. This is a seemingly heartless rejection of the entire occasion, and instead an adoption of a disdainful frigidity.
These are the people who on February 15 will come into the office with fierce pride that no, they certainly did not spend the evening at a restaurant, eyeball to eyeball with other couples publicly displaying their love. No, they did not buy or even make cards. No, they did not celebrate love, because only the weak-minded would fall for such an unbecoming commercialised ruse, because love must be kept fully under wraps at all time, never to see the light of day, nor to be ever spoken about. In fact, all this talk of love is a western-inspired conspiracy for cultural imperialism, and we must not fall for it or else Arabic or Muslim values as we know them will be doomed.
It's true that Valentine's Day is a new addition to the Middle East and the Muslim world, even compared with the West where it first appeared less than two centuries ago. But we need to ask ourselves, is it the commercialisation, the alien culture or the fact of celebrating love to which we are opposed? Given how Ramadan is dominated by television soap operas, how Eid has become a shopping-orientated celebration, and how McDonald's, KFC and western brands populate high streets, the only conclusion we can draw is that it's not commercialisation or cultural invasion that are the main sticking points, even if they are part of the problem. What seems to irk in particular about Valentine's Day is this outward and upfront discussion of love.
Can't we just relax a little when it comes to discussing love in public? If your first reaction to this statement is "our young people are going astray because of all this talk of love", then I say: Wait! Illicit romance, goo-goo eyes, and heart-shaped cards aren't love. By setting up an opposition to this superficial love, it is being legitimised as a proper expression of this fundamental and valuable human characteristic.
Love is rather a deep-rooted, primary human instinct that drives us to be the best people we can be, that motivates us to create strong robust relationships, and ultimately invests us with the most sophisticated humanity.
The uproar we should be making about Valentine's Day is not that it is "immoral", or commercialised, or a one-day, cheesy love-fest. The uproar we should be making is that there is no public forum, no social discourse, and little cultural appreciation about how we create more loving compassionate societies where talking of love - between partners, between parents and children, between relatives and neighbours - is absolutely normal and encouraged.
It's tiresome that the public shape of love is dictated by formulaic Hallmark or Hollywood romance. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl. Girl wears fabulous white dress. The End. What does that tell us about the complexities of love, its challenges, the investment it takes, its many forms and how love is shared with parents, friends and relatives? Nothing. Even expressing love in Hollywood settings can be trite and simplistic. Boy unexpectedly declares to girl "I love you", and both run a mile screaming because it's "too much". That's because there is no guidance or training on how to deal with such matters, because love isn't seen as something natural and organic. On the one hand, we're supposed to just "know" how to go about engaging in love, because there is a myth that you will meet someone, fall in love and live happily ever after. The story doesn't usually work like that. People and situations are complicated, so how are you supposed to know how to navigate them? On the other hand, the outrage over Valentine's Day shows that even a public mention of love is considered "shameful". So how is anyone ever supposed to learn how to love, who to love and how to manage and express their feelings?
So forget Valentine's Day. Let's talk love.
Let's start with some honesty and reflection on the challenges facing us. Love is often considered a difficult, naughty or subversive word. Perish the thought that someone might be "in love" or marry for love. Even in family relationships between siblings, or between parents and children love is something we find hard to express.
That's strange because the Prophet talked about how husbands should often say "I love you", how fathers should bring gifts for their children, and how Muslims should give each other hugs when they see each other and greet each other with "peace". It's strange because the West used to think of the East as a place of decadence because of its expression of emotion. It's strange because of the deep ties within families and strong collectivist cultures we live amongst.
We should be leading the way in celebrating these forms of love. Instead, we complain about Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day and Father's Day. Instead of moaning about cultural invasion, let's export some of the love - whether familial, filial, social or romantic - and make the point that love is not tacky or superficial.
What we actually need is a deep-rooted shift, a philosophical change to formally recognise and celebrate that love for other than the self underpins the quest to be human.
In Valentine's Day this quest meets its destination in romance. For the religious, this journey reaches its home in the Divine. In colloquial parlance when we find a partner to love, people describe the feeling as finally feeling "at home".
So if you see people celebrating Valentine's Day, don't despise them. Instead, understand that their hearts are alive and seeking love. Instead, reflect on your own loved ones, go home and tell your spouse, parent or child "I love you". Go on, it's easy if you try.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk