With red teddy bears, heart-shaped balloons, roses and Iraqi flags, Baghdad’s streets embraced Valentine’s Day in a festive atmosphere despite the four-month-long unrest and civil protests.
Early in the morning, hundreds of Iraqis of all ages flocked to Tahrir Square, Baghdad’s iconic protest hub, to celebrate the Love Revolution Festival that was announced days ago on social media.
The festival aimed to emphasize “unity among people” despite the death toll of over 600 ever since Iraqis took to the streets Oct. 1 to demand governmental change.
The festival included a large bazaar to sell paintings, artwork and handcrafts. It also hosted a common lunch where people sat down and lunched along a 1.5-kilometer-long path right in the middle of graffiti and murals in al-Saadoun tunnel and al-Khullani Square.
“This event symbolizes our patriotism, love for peace and desire to live in dignity,” Caesar al-Wardi, a 28-year-old protester and photographer from Baghdad, told Al-Monitor.
Others think love itself is resistance and revolution.
“This is a revolution of love, awareness and peace. It aims to eliminate poverty, wars and sectarianism,” Ali al-Mikdam, a journalist and one of the protesters from Baghdad, told Al-Monitor.
“Today is a day of beauty. This [Tahrir Square] might be the biggest place to celebrate our love for Iraq. We are all united, both men and women, to enjoy many artistic activities under the Freedom Monument,” he said.
With revolutionary vibes, Baghdad’s celebration this year embodies the spirit of this feast in defying tyranny, injustice and hate. When Roman Emperor Claudius II banned marriages to commit his soldiers to the army, Saint Valentine defied the unjust emperor and secretly continued performing marriages for young lovers in his city. Upon finding out about these activities, the emperor ordered the execution of Saint Valentine on Feb. 14, 270 A.D.
Iraqis’ celebrations came in defiance of the controversial cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s calls to stifle social freedoms and impose gender segregation on protesters.
“Before, there were voices calling for militancy, killing, slitting throats and booby-trapping in the name of religion,” said Sadr in a tweet Feb. 13, “Today, we hear calls for liberation, nudity, promiscuity, drunkenness and immorality.”
Sadr continued his condemnation of the voices calling for infidelity and infringement of the divine as well as against religious principles, prophets and infallible imams.
Referring to the slogan “Baghdad will never be another Kandahar” used by secular activists in Baghdad in 2010, Sadr said these groups want to turn Baghdad into Chicago.
“Today, we are obliged not to turn Iraq into Kandahar with religious extremism nor into Chicago with liberation, moral turpitude and homosexuality, or to make it a place for immorality and incest,” he said, calling on his supporters to defend faith and morality against those who glorify lust, pleasures and the infidel West. Sadr also called secularists the “Daesh of civility and liberation" (Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, or IS) and called his followers the soldiers of God and the infallible imams.
This led women supporting Sadr to take to the streets, clad in black and lifting photos of the Shiite cleric, condemning the secular marches and calling to purify the protests of "deviant women,” turning the celebration into an ideological conflict between conservatives and liberals.
"Everything was turned upside down at 4 pm when the Sadrists flocked the square. They tried to spoil everything," said Mikdam.
He added, “Sadr has many political and religious blunders. He once considered football forbidden and a waste of time and called Valentine’s Day a fad. In 2015 he participated in the protests, and some secular and communist figures became his allies with whom he formed the Sairoon Alliance. They gave nothing to Iraqis in general and the Sadrists in particular. Now he is attacking patriotic people who have no affiliation with parties and other countries.”
“We are not IS. The BBC showed how clerics traded women as if they were sex slaves in return for money. That was similar to what IS did in Raqqa," said Mikdam.
Minatullah al-Obaidi, a graduate of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah, sees Baghdad’s Valentine's Day as a challenge for Sadr's and clergymen’s interventions in politics.
“Sadr's followers were chased out of Tahrir Square after he called on them to rejoin and retake protest sites in Iraq,” said Obaidi, who holds a master's degree in contemporary Arab studies from Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. “His recent call for gender segregation in the wider protests was responded to by the first Iraqi women's march to reject his statement. Iraqi activists cross-dressed and launched a satirical campaign to counter Sadr's ideas that are seen as going against women's empowerment and equality," added Obaidi.
Obaidi thinks Sadr’s saying "Iraq will never be Chicago" is an attempt to reinforce his influence, which has been weakened by the "multitude of protesters who have rejected his position as a Shiite cleric and as a red line."
Thanks to Sadr’s controversial opinions and ability to attract attention through provocation, Iraqis are increasingly losing faith in the religious establishment, said Obaidi.
On Feb. 13, hundreds of Iraqi women of all ages and classes, with and without headscarves — some clad in pink or purple — flooded the streets, rejecting Sadr’s call for gender segregation in the rallies.
“The majority of the crowd wept at the splendor of the scene; girls and women were chanting while young men surrounded the march as a protective shield,” Nibras Hashim, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad — who put a pink scarf around her neck — told Al-Monitor. She added, “The march was indescribable. I was speechless and surprised by the preparation, celebrations, and young women's and men's unity and spirit."
Mikdam thinks the march and Valentine’s Day celebrations are a harsh hit to radical Islamists.
“This is a powerful reply to such reactionary calls for gender segregation. This came instead of their calling to separate religion from politics, corruption from the government and militias from the state. We have broken the fear barriers and showed the signs of liberation and secularism of such protests," he said.
Despite the endemic violence that haunted the lives of Iraqis after 2003, people proved determined to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Baghdad over the past two decades and in Mosul in the wake of the defeat of the terrorist group IS in 2017.
“All that we asked for is a homeland. We took to the streets to restore our homeland that has been stolen by politicians and militias,” said Mikdam. “Even if these protests end, the love revolution has succeeded. Apart from the political gains we achieved legislating the individual electoral system and the prime minister’s resignation, we have achieved much more. We have renovated the spirit of patriotism, the ability to rebel against the unjust. We are afraid of nobody now, for our only master is our homeland — not tweets,” he added.