Ila Pathak, a feminist crusader (1933-2014)

Ilaben Pathak

Saluting the pioneering work of Ilaben Pathak in women and civil rights movements which was an inspiration not only to the people whose lives she touched and changed but also to her fellow travelers

By Vibhuti Patel and Sonal Shukla

Gujarat lost a dedicated social activist who stood by socially excluded sections of society, especially brutalized women when Prof. Ila Pathak passed away due to breast cancer on January 9, 2014 in Ahmedabad. She tirelessly supported women survivors of dowry harassment, rape, crimes of honour. She campaigned against sex selective abortions of female foetuses from way back in the 1980s.

Both of us have been aware of her work with Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) from 1981 when she attended the first national conference of women’s studies in Mumbai that resulted in the formation of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS). Ilaben brought her own energies and perspective to the women’s movement. She was a determined activist right from the beginning of the movement.

A master’s degree in law, a Ph.D. in English literature and a high post in NCC were indicative of her capacity to achieve the goals she had set for herself. Her devotion to working for women’s rights and development was reflected in her writings and action through AWAG and innumerable institutions she was associated with.

Feminist Activism of Ilaben Pathak:
Ilaben began her career as a university teacher of English language and literature at H. K. Arts College, Ahmedabad and as a free- lance journalist who wrote addressing women’s concerns. In the early seventies she started her crusade against misogyny in Gujarati plays rife with double entendre, full of crude and crass jokes/puns that degraded women and objectified women’s bodies.

In 1981, Ilaben with her young colleagues and students such as Dr. Ila Joshi, Aditi Desai (Theatre artiste), Sofia Khan (now a human rights lawyer) established AWAG (acronym means noise). AWAG energetically made noise against sexism in advertisements, media and textbooks. They blackened sexist advertisements at public places and staged dharna against a phallocentric play “Putra Kameshti Yagna” to be aired on All India Radio and got the broadcasting cancelled. Her tireless work resulted in Government of Gujarat appointing a committee under her leadership to examine the portrayal of gender stereotypes and subordinate status of women in school textbooks. She involved us in this effort. The government mandate for evaluation was decided within the framework of equality, development and peace.

In 1982, she spearheaded a participatory action research project of AWAG to highlight the precarious condition of homeless and miserable tribal migrant workers near railway tracks of Ahmedabad city who eked out their subsistence by collecting coal fallen on the railway tracks. She started income generation activities for them based on tribal art and beadwork. In 1982, when a tribal woman in Sagbara village of South Gujarat was gang raped, Ilaben took the case up to Amnesty International. As a result all the rapists were punished.

Ilaben took leadership for movement against Patan P T C College gang rape in which a 19-year-old Dalit student was repeatedly raped over a period of time by her male teachers. She also supported Manipur’s Irom Sharmila’s agitation against Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act (AFSPA).

Ilaben’s courageous and consistent work among victims of communal riots post demolition of Babri Musjid in 1993 and among Muslim refugees after Gujarat riots in 2002 symbolised her secular humanism

Ilaben’s command over language came handy to coin catchy and hard hitting slogans in Gujarati such as “Silence is not a virtue, Break the silence of oppression”, “Putting up with injustice is not a virtue, fight for justice”. She gave great emphasise to documentation, research and training and AWAG always provided information in local Gujarati language and resource persons for capacity building of community workers, elected representatives and youth. From 1986-1992, she regularly wrote for a feminist quarterly in Gujarati, Nari Mukti (Women’s Freedom) that was collectively brought out by feminists of Mumbai, Valsad, Surat, Vadodara and Ahmedabad.

We have fond memories of spending quality time with Ilaben at the IAWS Conferences, The Nairobi World Conference on Women, 1985, Gujarat Human Rights Conference, 1990, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 2011 and capacity building conferences of Gujarat University on sexual harassment at workplace. In order to bring women’s rights agenda in to the mainstream of politics, she also contested election for Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in 1990.

Ilaben and Social Movements
Her persuasive style of speaking was her success mantra. She could reach out to all- Gandhian, liberals, feminists, human rights activists, leftists. She could establish communication with the rich and powerful without getting cowed down by them. She reached out to weak and marginalized people with utmost humility. She made lifelong friends among women’s studies scholars and feminists whenever she attended national and international conferences on women. She used to attend these conferences with over a dozen women from her organization and she looked after them very well.

Crucial Contribution
Ilaben served on many apex bodies to further the cause of women. She was a member of the Women Development Cell of Gujarat University that had to perform twin tasks of prevention of sexual harassment and promotion of gender sensitization in the University and its affiliated colleges. Ilaben was also a governing board member of Centre for Social Studies, Surat. She played an important role in all women centred activities of Gujarat Vidyapeeth. Ilaben was president of the India Chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was an active member of the Movement for Secular Democracy. In 2012, Ilaben Pathak was honoured for her work among poor and oppressed women. Four books were published based on a compilation of her articles promoting women’s striving for dignity and their struggle for empowerment.

Her four-decades-long pioneering work will always give us strength and inspiration to keep the torch of women’s rights burning in today’s volatile circumstances. She has left a huge fan following among students and all those women whom she supported pro-actively, intellectually and emotionally. Ilaben will always remain with us in spirit. As fellow travelers in the women’s movement who shared common her-story and collective memory, we salute our sister, Ila Pathak.

3 comments

  1. Jharna Pathak says:

    She was an inspiration to all of us. She always said that she would want to die with her boots on. And that’s exactly what she did. Her last article appeared on January 7th. I loved her and miss her a lot. If we can carry her ideals forward, we would feel that we have given her a proper tribute.

  2. PREETI OZA says:

    Ilaben was an inspiration. She worked within and without the system with the same honesty and commitment, to ensure that equality justice and sisterhood was promoted for women. May her soul rest in peace and her life and works be an inspiration to all of us at present and all future feminists.

    • Nita Sharma Yajnik says:

      Ilaben Pathak was my professor at undergrad and post grad level. A Great professor and a great person. I still remember, when she was awarded her Ph.D she had invited me in the Abhiruchi meeting. I was her undergrad student and She had introduced me as her young friend. Since then I was always attached to her due to her ideals and her way of living those ideals. I used to meet her regularly at her house in Professor’s colony and she would prepare nice tea for me and we would sit and talk on various topics for a long time. After I moved to US, each time I visited India, we met and had very enlightened conversations. She was always full of life force. When I visited in 2013 July, she was just operated and she had to attend an international conference but she did not give in due to ill health. She did attend it! In later part of December, 2013 I dreamed of her in early in the morning, she came to US to see me. It was premonition of her demise. We had a long talk on phone and today I am reading her news of passing away on Facebook. I was fortunate that I could talk to her before her death. My heartfelt condolences to her son Kalind and daughter in –law Zarna to bear this loss. SHE WAS STRENGTH INCARNATED!

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