In fresh evidence that extreme religious groups are gradually losing their influence on Iraqi society, Baghdad celebrated St Valentine’s in full force on Tuesday, with people dressed in red and shops competing with different gifts to mark the day.
Borouj Abed, a 13-year-old student, made sure to prepare her outfit days ago.
“I bought a new jacket, a bag, a pair of shoes. I also got some accessories, all red to give to my friends,” she said.
Many women wore red clothes, scarves and shoes, replacing the black mourning clothes which had dominated the country for two months while Shiites marked the death of Prophet Mohamed’s grandson, Imam Hussein.
Residents say this year the city is experiencing unprecedented celebrations with red teddy bears, candles and hearts, especially in the upmarket areas of Mansour, Karrada and other areas of the capital.
“Valentine’s Day is important for me because it has a noble goal and it spreads hope for freedom and security, which is important for our country,” Abed added.
A few days ago, all shops, even fast food outlets, began hanging red decorations on their doors to attract customers.
The country’s extremist groups, who gained in strength following the 2003 US-led invasion, have always shunned Western fashions.
The latest celebrations are not just a nod to Western culture, they also provide evidence that many Iraqis now feel safer after years of sectarian strife.
While several Arab countries celebrate Valentine’s Day in force, more conservative states such as Saudi Arabia hold an annual purge on anything red ahead of the day.
In Iraq, by contrast, the young, especially Christians, have been paying special attention to the event, using gift cards and text messages to greet each other. This year, the phenomenon has spread across all ages and religions.
“We started offering special Valentine’s Day gifts since the beginning of the month, and it received great attention this year,” says Abu Moataz, a 57-year-old shop owner.
He says he has received special requests for red decorations, cakes and candy from several families since last week.
The celebrations come amid persistent political tension in the country following disputes that broke out in December between the Shiite political bloc, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Sunni-backed parliamentary group.
Today “is an occasion to share optimism, enjoy life and distract ourselves from the violence and political rivalry in Iraq now,” Abu Moataz said.
By Kadhim al-Attabi