Whatever your position on the abortion debate, the power of the pañuelo verde – the green handkerchief which has become emblematic of the campaign for the decriminalization and legalization of abortion – cannot be denied. The pañuelo’s symbolic strength such that other groups have now adopted it as part of their protest tactics, but has this widespread use started to dilute its meaning?
First, it bears emphasizing that the pañuelo of the pro-choice movement is in and of itself a borrowed symbol. It first emerged in relation to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the association of mothers that conducted weekly marches at the city’s iconic square to demand answers about the disappearance of their children during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.
The Mothers allegedly began donning the headscarves when one of them suggested wearing the cloth diapers that their children had used on their heads. The diapers, symbolic of a mother’s unconditional love, represented a precious memory from their children’s missing childhoods. Over time, the diaper was transformed into the emblematic white headscarf for which the Madres are known today.
The white pañuelo has had an enduring legacy in Argentina, where it remains a symbol of female courage and strength in the face of adversity. It became a national symbol in 2014, assigning it the same importance as the Argentine flag, the rosette (escarapela), the national coat of arms, and the national anthem. Handkerchiefs have also been painted around the Plaza de Mayo as a constant reminder of the Madres’ struggle.
Hence why the Campaign for Safe, Free and Legal Abortion (Campaña por el aborto legal, seguro y gratuito) adopted this emblem 40 years later, as to this day it still carries a weighty resonance with many citizens, especially women. As for the green, that was more a matter of convenience.
In an interview with La Nación, Miranda Gonzalez Martin from the campaign said that green was one of the few colors that had not already been assigned a concrete meaning in Argentina. “Purple is the color of feminism and is very widely used, orange is often used by the Church, red represents the Left, and blue has been historically used by Peronism,” she explained.
The pro-choice movement used the green handkerchief to great effect, brandishing it in protests to transform into an emerald sea of voices calling for the legalization of abortion. The pro-life movement was slower to mobilize at the beginning of the debate, but recognized the power of the pañuelo. They soon produced their own version, choosing the sky blue of the Argentine flag to identify their movement with national identity.
Throughout the debate, and particularly at the closing stages of discussion in the Lower House, green and blue would face off against each other, making the whole debate incredibly visual. Pañuelos of either color, though particularly green, have become a part of everyday life on the streets of Buenos Aires, especially among the young.
They’re tied to handbags and rucksacks and visible in profile pictures on social media. They’ve become part of pop culture, to the extent that when the bill passed in the Lower House, pro-choice movements in other countries adopted the symbol in differing colors and with their own slogans.
And then at the end of last week, it was the turn of the orange pañuelo, linked now to what many assure will be the next big debate in Argentina. Worn by the actresses Catherine Fulop and Verónica Llinas on Podemos Hablar with Andy Kusnetoff, they stated: “This is theoretically a secular country, but it’s not the reality. The Church has a great deal of influence in representatives’ decisions,” said Llinas on the program.
A color traditionally associated with the Church, the orange pañuelo was created by the Argentine Coalition for a Secular State (Coalición Argentina por un Estado Laico), which told Clarín that they would become more active following the vote on August 8th, as to not divert attention from the issue at hand.
While on the one hand, the orange pañuelo is linked to the abortion debate, which has become a platform for wider concerns in Argentine society, in particular the call to properly regulate the separation between Church and State, it represents its own issue that will be discussed following the vote, no matter the outcome. The fact that this campaign has adopted this symbol now begs the question as to whether the pañuelo’s decline has already begun.
When worn on the wrist, the pañuelo evokes the Livestrong bracelets of the early 2000s. If you were living under a rock at the time, the bright yellow rubber bands began life as a way to raise money for Lance Armstrong’s cancer research foundation. Between 2004 and 2013, about 87 million were reportedly sold, raising an estimated US $70 million for charity; celebrities and politicians were often seen wearing them.
Other charities saw the success of these bands and jumped on the bandwagon. So far, so good. However, the bands’ popularity, especially among children and teenagers, meant that it wasn’t long until they became entirely commercialized, with brands and advertisers producing bracelets bearing no relation to charity whatsoever. The trend finally jumped the shark when the Armstrong doping scandal broke, though by that point, there already had been such an over-saturation of the bands that they lost nearly all meaning.
Is this going to be the fate of the pañuelo too? While at the moment, green and blue are the undisputed symbols of the two sides of the abortion debate, the addition of the orange handkerchief indicates that the symbol is becoming too (sorry for the hipster-talk) mainstream. Given the success of the pañuelos in this debate, will they now be used in every political demonstration for every cause before devolving into merely a fashion statement?
Given the significant national history behind the pañuelo, one would hope not. However, this debate has inspired a mass mobilization, especially among young people, that has proved to be extremely influential, with thousands and thousands uniting behind one shared symbol. What political cause wouldn’t want that? However, if more groups hitch on to the pañuelo bandwagon, it’s only inevitable that we’ll all suffer from pañuelo fatigue and move on to the next trend. Pañuelo, thy days are numbered.