Donning bright yellow head scarves, called dupatta, thousands of women joined farmers’ protests on the outskirts of Indian capital Delhi on Monday to mark International Women’s Day, demanding the scrapping of laws they deem detrimental to growers.
Since December, many farmers accompanied by their families have camped at three sites on the outskirts of Delhi to oppose the biggest farm reforms in decades, which the government claims will boost their finances.
The bright yellow scarves represent the colour of mustard fields, a symbol of spring in this part of the world.
The women took centre stage at one key site, chanting slogans, holding small marches, and making speeches through loudspeakers to target the laws.
“This is an important day as it represents women’s strength,” said Veena, a 37-year-old from a farming family, who gave only one name in order to protect her identity.
“I believe if us women are united, then we can achieve our target much quicker,” added Veena, who travelled from Punjab to the sprawling Tikri protest spot.
Police estimated that more than 20,000 women gathered at the site near Delhi’s border with the state of Haryana.
“This is a day that will be managed and controlled by women, the speakers will be women, there will be a lot of feminist perspectives brought in, and discussions on what these laws mean for women farmers,” said farm activist Kavitha Kuruganti.
“It is one more occasion to showcase and highlight the contribution of women farmers both in agriculture in India as well as to this movement.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extremist government says the reforms will bring private investment into a vast and outdated farm sector, improve supply chains and cut high waste.
Faced with the protests, the government offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, but the farmers have refused to back down, demanding their repeal.
Agriculture accounts for nearly 15% of India’s $2.9 trillion economy and employs about half its workforce.
Women farmers have as much at stake as men from the new laws, Kuruganti added.
“Markets that are distant as well as exploitative make single women farmers more vulnerable, and in any case a patriarchal society has discriminated and made them vulnerable.”
About 100 women sat in front of a makeshift stage in Ghazipur, one of the protest sites bordering with Uttar Pradesh state.
They listened to female farm leaders speak and chanted slogans against the laws. At least 17 took part in a day-long hunger strike.
“Women are sitting here, out in the open, in protest, but Modi doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about mothers, sisters, and daughters. He doesn’t care about women. That’s clear,” said Mandeep Kaur, a female farmer who travelled 1,100km from Chhattisgarh state to participate in the protests.
Women have been prominent at the forefront of the protests, which have posed one of the biggest challenges to Modi since he took office in 2014.
Many travelled with their men who arrived at the protest sites in late November and have since organised and led protest marches, run medical camps and massive soup kitchens that feed thousands, and raised demands for gender equality.