Saudis celebrate Valentine's Day, but can't name it
Chocolates, flowers, red clothes and lingerie are on display in the shop windows. Shop assistants confirm,behind anonymity, the increase in sales and business linked to the occasion. But the Saint's name remains a taboo. Young people hope for further, albeit gradual, changes in the future.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) - A holiday that is celebrated with flowers, chocolates and red lingerie, but which cannot be called by its name because it is not linked to the Muslim tradition that dominates the country's culture and permeates all social life. This is Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia, an event that has only been celebrated for a very few years, but which is becoming increasingly popular, especially among young people, with shop windows decorated with clothes and lingerie on display, especially for women.
The day dedicated to romatic love, which falls today, sees a record peak in sales and gifts related to Valentine's Day, but there is not a single commercial activity that bears the Saint's name associated with the feast.
One saleswoman at a shopping centre in Riyadh tells Afp on condition of anonymity, "management asked us to decorate the window with red lingerie... without mentioning Valentine's Day anywhere."
"Now we can happily put red clothes on display and even in the window," adds a saleswoman at Grenada Mall, in the eastern sector of the capital. Also speaking behind anonymity, she adds "we have dedicated discounts, but we can hardly call them Valentine's Day offers".
The public display of clothes and lingerie are a change that was unthinkable a few years ago, when the religious police punished people with public beatings for wearing red clothes. Today, the festival is also celebrated in the main newspapers of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi kingdom, such as Arab News, with a long article dedicated to perfumes, which are "a great way to express love". Flowers, gold, jewellery and classic chocolates feature in shop windows.
The change came in 2019 thanks also to the openness of an Islamic leader who called Valentine's Day a "positive social event". Mohammad bin Salman's social reforms were behind the change, resulting in a "liberalisation" of customs (and of the economy, which for a long time was linked only to oil), which was counterbalanced by a tightening of political and institutional rules. Moreover, some structures linked to radical Islam and patriarchy, such as male guardianship, remain unchanged.
However, not all Saudi women appreciate the change. "Not everyone is comfortable with the underwear being on show, finding it a jarring sight after decades when such items were kept strictly behind closed doors. I don't want to see these things," said one woman, fully veiled in black except for her eyes. She did not want to give her name. "They bother me, but there are people who like it and this is their freedom of choice."
Saleswomen and shop assistants, without revealing their names, confirm that these days there are peaks in clothing purchases and most of them are looking for red clothes. The most popular item? Obviously lingerie in the colour of love, followed by perfumes, make-up and beauty products, which stand out in the shop windows amidst hearts and references to the festival.
Reem al-Qahtani, a 22-year-old young man looking for a purchase among the various products on display, points out that Saudi society is starting to accept Valentine's Day "gradually" but without mentioning it at the moment. "Right now," he concludes, "we celebrate discreetly in cafes and restaurants, but we hope it will have more and more weight and value in the coming years.