As western flower sellers, restaurants and chocolatiers prepare for a Valentine’s Day bonanza, how do couples in the Middle East mark the day – or do they?
In Saudi Arabia, it is the religious police who swoop on chocolatiers and flower sellers, zealous to enforce a ban on the celebration as a western import that incites immorality. In Iran, the festival is officially prohibited for similar reasons.
Yet in most of the region, Valentine’s Day is a growing phenomenon. Flower stalls and markets overflow with seas of red flowers, balloons and teddy bears. In well-to-do districts, hotels, restaurants, and jewellers gear up for a highlight of their year.
But widespread tokens of love in February bely a deeply conservative attitude to any friendship across the sexes before couples are on the road to marriage. In general, any idea of dating before engagement is frowned upon, whether in Christian or Muslim circles.
In churches, for example, teenagers and young adults are firmly discouraged from forming one-to-one relationships until they are ready to consider engagement to someone they might scarcely know.
Secrecy and denial
It was because of this that the Egypt-based SAT-7 team who produce Needle and New Thread decided to dedicate a recent episode to exploring love and dating in the region. Church and parental fears over children mixing or dating has actually led to an unhealthy culture of secrecy and denial, in the view of the programme’s producer, Alexandria-born Maggie Morgan.
“Officially,” Maggie says, “in the Middle East, there is no dating. Usually there is engagement. But in reality what happens on the ground is that people date anyway behind the backs of the families and institutions – they mix and interact and get married because they know each other.”
Learn more about Needle and Thread, SAT-7’s Arabic programme for young women
Flouting the rules, however, prevents older teenagers and young adults from being able to talk about their friendships with parents or church leaders. Nor can they bring home a girl or boy to meet the family except when there is a firm intention to move towards marriage.
“The point of this episode was that we’re not encouraged to mix at all,” Maggie explains. “And then at one point in your life you are supposed to make a decision about who to marry. You are expected to make a good decision but I don’t know how anyone can, because you have no experience!”
The opportunities to meet and get to know members of the opposite sex are in fact very limited in most Arab societies. Children are educated in single sex schools. Almost all church groups separate the sexes even at university age. There are no mixed singles groups and few opportunities for young people to meet openly. In more conservative areas a girl and boy are not even supposed to stand alone together after church.
The secrecy young people in the Arab world are forced into “is actually more risky,” Maggie says. “I think a lot of girls are in abusive relationships because they have no one to tell them if a guy does this or that to you it’s not good. They don’t know because they can’t talk about it. Bringing these issues into the light is the healthiest thing but parents are always so scared,” she says.
Hearing different views
Needle and New Thread typically listens to different viewpoints and then allows viewers to call in and share theirs. On this occasion, two guests, Rosette, a young teacher and leader in a Brethren church, and Michael, a church elder and development worker, took opposite views within a clear, Christian framework.
“The show was very clear at the beginning, that we were not talking about premarital sex or anything like that,” Maggie says. “We were looking at the best way to establish healthy relationships between young men and women.”
Rosette said her fellowship discouraged any one-to-one dating and does not have mixed groups. They encourage them not to mix until they are ready to get engaged. She felt it was enough to learn from other people’s advice and experience. Although it is possible to end an engagement, Maggie points out, there is a lot of stigma attached to this for the girl.
Michael, wasn’t convinced by Rose’s position. He said he would want his son to be able to talk to him about any girls he likes so that he could be involved as a father and mentor. He felt having healthy, non-sexual friendships before his children commit would give them the ability to make a good choice at the right time. And he felt if young people brought a boy or girl home it would be a great way for parents to get to know them and give advice.
“Walk in the light”
The show set these personal views in a biblical context: of marriage being intended for life, and therefore seeing a decision about marriage as a great responsibility. Michael questioned the region’s fearful attitude towards love, quoting 1 John: “There is no fear in love”. He stressed a Christian’s calling to be people who “walk in the light” as Jesus did.
The show’s presenter and both guests stressed the need to develop emotional intelligence, to control emotions, ask questions to get to know someone properly, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
After Michael and Rosette shared their ideas, the show’s presenter invited viewers to call in. Among parent callers, concern seemed uppermost: “’They ‘re very young, they’re irresponsible. What if they make a mistake?’, meaning what if they have sex,” Maggie interprets. “That’s always the biggest fear if we let people get to know each other.” She adds that premarital sex or having a child outside marriage is viewed as gravely by Christian families as it is by others in the Middle East.
The typical response from younger viewers was different: “’Yeah, I wish I could tell my Mum’. It was that kind of thing: I assume nobody wants to hide,” Maggie says. “I remember especially a university student from Assiut in conservative Upper Egypt who said, ‘Yes! I wish everybody would hear what you are saying; it makes so much sense.’”
Clearly, the programme didn’t arrive at a consensus, but it had raised an important aspect of young people’s lives that the Needle and New Thread team feels is not addressed realistically, even in church. And enabling people to look afresh at the threads of convention and everyday life with God’s help is what the show is all about.
Since it tackled dating, Needle and Thread has plunged into other topics as diverse as mental health and the effects of social media. But the perennial subject of relationships is always around the corner. On 19 April, the show plans to explore love and marriage and pose the question: should we marry for love or for other reasons? No doubt viewers will have some interesting thoughts on that one too!
Nermine from Aswan: “I encourage my daughter to meet boys but with limits. I teach her that she must be careful regarding other people touching her so as not to exceed the limits of privacy.”
Nardine from Cairo: “Dating doesn’t depend on age. It depends on maturity. Before dating I must know the consequences so I can judge if the relationship is going in the right direction or not.”
Jack: “This isn’t that God wants. It is normal to feel attracted to another person but dating causes us to hurt one another in the process when the couple aren’t mature enough or responsible.”
Mona from Cairo: “It is OK to have a relationship between girls and boys but they must be healthy and within limits… maintaining chastity.”