A feminist crusader (1933-2014)

In the passing away of Prof. Ila Pathak, due to breast cancer on 9 January 2014 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat lost a dedicated social activist who fought for the socially excluded sections of society, especially brutalised women. Ilaben Pathak tirelessly supported women survivors of dowry harassment, rape victims, women whose noses were cut as punishment for being ‘adulteress’ by their husbands and inlaws), and campaigned against abortions of female foetuses since 1980s.

Ilaben attended the first national conference of women’s studies at the SNDT Women’s university’s in 1981, which led to the formation of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies. She was a relentless worker from the beginning. Ilaben began her career as a university teacher of English language and literature at H. K. Arts College, Ahmedabad and was a freelance journalist who wrote on issues concerning women. In the early 70’s she started her crusade against misogyny in Gujarati plays that were rife with double meaning sentences, full of crude and crass jokes/puns that degraded women.

Along with her young colleagues/ students, she established a women’s rights organisation, called the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) which protested against sexism in advertisement, media and textbooks. They blackened sexist advertisements at public places, 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 the government of Gujarat appointing a committee under her leadership to examine portrayal of sex stereotypes and subordinate status of women in school textbooks.

In 1982, she spearheaded participatory action research project of AWAG to bring out the precarious condition of homeless and miserable tribal migrant workers near railway tracks of Ahmedabad city who eked out a living by collecting coal fallen from engine on the 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 she activised the government machinery and took the case to Amnesty International. As a result, all the rapists were punished and the tribal woman got justice. She also led the movement against Patan P T C College for students who were gang raped by their male teachers backed by powerful politicians. Ilaben also supported Manipur’s Irom Sharmila’s agitation against Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act (AFSPA). Her courageous and consistent work among victims of communal riots in 1993 and later in 2002 symbolised her secular humanism.

She gave great emphasis to documentation, research and training, and AWAG always provided material in local language and case studies 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. To highlight women‘s issues in mainstream politics, she even contested election for Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in 1990.

Her persuasive style of speaking was her success mantra. She could establish communication with the rich and powerful without getting cowed down by them. She reached out to the weak and marginalised with utmost humility. Ilaben served on many apex bodies to further the cause of women. She was a member of Women Development Cell of Gujarat University that had to perform twin tasks of prevention of sexual harassment and promotion of gender sensitisation in the university and its affiliated colleges. She was a governing board member of Centre for Social Studies, Surat and played an important role in all women centered activities of Gujarat Vidyapeeth.

She was president of India Chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and was an active member of Movement for Secular Democracy. In 2012, Ilaben was honoured for her work among poor and oppressed women. Ilaben’s four decades of pioneering work will always inspire women activists to keep the torch of women’s rights burning in today’s volatile circumstances.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel

The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Economics, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.