THE STORY OF THE YELLOW DUPATA: FASHION AS A FORM OF PROTEST
AN INDIVIDUALISTIC EXPRESSION FUELS THE COLLECTIVE UPRISING AGAINST HARMFUL POLICY IN INDIA
March 20, 2023
Fashion is a mode of self expression for so many individuals–a way to explore different aspects of one’s personality. For many others, fashion goes beyond a reflection of individualism. It is a way for individuals to collectively unite and express the voices of people. Fashion makes incredibly bold and powerful statements and is a foundational element of so many protests around the world, especially in India.
In September 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enacted three farm laws to ‘reform’ the Indian agriculture market. These laws would “deregulate Indian agriculture, [lift] government supervision of crop sales and [allow] corporations to directly negotiate with farmers” (Frayer). The issue with these bills is that the farmers it’s meant to assist already live in extreme poverty. The state of Punjab, for example, is a major farming state in India and produces most of the country’s grain. However, nearly 86 percent of farming households live with significant debt. Decreasing government role would privatize the industry, which would worsen the farmers’ situation with the “small size of landholdings, unequal access to financial and infrastructural resources and indebtedness” (Walia). These laws would essentially make an already vulnerable population even more vulnerable.
In response to the passage of the farm laws, over 500,000 farmers protested in a variety of states for over a year (“Timeline: Indian Farmers’ Protests Against Agricultural Laws”). Some of the most significant movements and protests during this period were led by female farmers who wore yellow dupattas, a traditional article of clothing in Indian culture, representative of the bright mustard fields in Punjab where they work (Walia).
Famous painting of Bhagat Singh in a yellow turban. Image from Divya Goyal’s “Shaheed Bhagat Singh Never Wore Basanti Turban: Researcher”
These yellow dupattas are also reminiscent of Bhagat Singh, a freedom fighter who protested British colonial rule of India. A famous painting of Bhagat Singh wearing a yellow turban made it a symbol of revolution and resistance (“Historians Say Bhagat Singh never Wore a Yellow Turban, With Only Four Real Pictures of Him Available”). In the farmers’ protest, female farmers used the yellow dupattas to emphasize the importance of their unfaltering resistance in the face of sociopolitical inequality.
The brightness of the dupattas demands the attention that these women have not received for their work in agriculture. In fact, 85 percent of women in rural India labor for the industry, but only 13 percent actually own any land. Furthermore, “[t]hey also face challenges in getting bank credit, access to technology and market opportunities… [and have] the burden of taking care of domestic activities” (Pundir). Yet, there seems to be no consideration for women in existing protests.
The yellow dupatta is a sign of the layers of injustice faced by those who wear it. It is a representation of societal stratification between gender, caste, and class. It signifies the battles that have been won, and the battles that need to be fought for true equality. It demands attention from authority in a society where none was given to them. The yellow dupatta has been and will continue to be a powerful symbol of resistance for progress in India.