By Laura Hamilton
Symbols have been used for centuries to allow people to demonstrate they belong to a group, reflect their beliefs and show solidarity with a cause. With time they become icons – for better or for worse – and just one look at a symbol can evoke the memory of the cause associated with it. I will look at the movement of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and their trademark white headscarf (pañuelo blanco in Spanish), an example of a symbol prior to the age of the Twitter and Facebook, where solidarity to a cause is often shown in a digital format.
Nowadays, the use of a hashtag allows people to use social media in order to show their solidarity, or disagreement, with a topic or thought. It creates a group mentality and means that people are able to group their thoughts and beliefs together by simply adding a hash sign before an agreed word. This can be used in relation to pretty much anything, but often is used in campaigns or protests. However, this has not always been the case, and prior to the Internet, other methods were used to identify groups.
Although the Guerra Sucia took place in Argentina over 40 years ago, every day new discoveries are being made about what truly happened during those years of political violence, especially thanks to the tireless campaigning of a group of Argentine women.
The picture accompanying this article shows street art above a children’s playground in Buenos Aires. Although at first it seems like ghosts, or abstract cartoon characters, it is in fact depicting the trademark white headscarves of La Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (The Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo).
Street art covers the city: this piece has not been created at random, but has been put here to show that the Madres are protecting the children; watching over them; that they will not allow the atrocities of the ‘dirty war’ to be repeated. Wandering around the city, you can see this same design dotted around and it is even stencilled onto the pavement in the Plaza de Mayo.
The significance of a white headscarf in this context is that when the headscarves were first used it was because their protests began in a time when it was prohibited to meet in groups. Therefore members were able to identify one another by this item of clothing, but could not be arrested for protest, since it was not out of the ordinary. A white headscarf, something which most Argentine women owned already, was then transformed from a simple item of clothing into the symbol of their protest.
The white headscarf has served as a symbol, becoming a political icon due to the association with the cause and embodying the Madres political aims. It reflects the political action they have taken and the creativity used to show solidarity and further their cause in a way that meant they could not be arrested since they did not physically gather in a group but were able to identify one another through the white scarf, which has now become the symbol of their cause.
In the 21st Century, modern technology facilitates protests: live commentary appears on Twitter within minutes; Facebook statuses inform us of friends’ political views; YouTube videos go viral and make a global impact. Protests can be organised in a matter of minutes via social media, with hashtags allowing users to show their solidarity for a campaign. These women used what they had available and anyone who has visited, or lived, in Buenos Aires will be able to explain the meaning attached to these headscarves and the identity that they have now embodied. This demonstrates the impact something as simple as a piece of white cloth can have, a predecessor to the hashtag in identifying oneself as part of a movement, or the Guy Fawkes’ masks worn by Anonymous protesters in recent years. It demonstrates that using a symbol to signify group identity has been around for centuries, and leaves me to wonder what the Madres would use if they were to begin their movement today.