Ila Pathak, a feminist crusader

Vibhuti Patel and Sonal Shukla

Ila Pathak, a feminist crusader (1933-2014)

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

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. 

January 11, 2014 Obituary

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches

Abraham Lincoln

Ralph W. Emerson

We meet under the gloom of a calamity which darkens down over the minds of good men in all civil society, as the fearful tidings travel over sea, over land, from country to country, like the shadow of an uncalculated eclipse over the planet.  Old as history is, and manifold as are its tragedies, I doubt if any death has caused so much pain to mankind as this has caused. 

In this country everyone was struck dumb as he meditated on the ghastly blow.  And perhaps, at this hour, when the coffin that contains the dust of the President sets forward on its long march through mourning states, on its way to his home in Illinois, we might well be silent, and suffer the awful voices of the time to thunder to us.  Yes, but that first despair was brief: the man was not so to be mourned.  He was the most active and hopeful of men; and acclamation of praise for the task he had accomplished burst out into a song of triumph, which even tears for his death cannot keep down. 

The President stood before us as a man of the people; a quite native, aboriginal man, as an acorn from the oak; Kentuckian born, working on a farm, a flatboatman, a country lawyer, a representative in the rural legislature of Illinois – on such modest foundations the broad structure of his fame was laid.  How slowly he came to his place.  All of us remember – it is only a history of five or six years.

A plain man of the people, an extraordinary fortune attended him.  He offered no shining qualities at the first encounter; he did not offend by superiority.  He had a face and manner that disarmed suspicion, which inspired confidence which confirmed goodwill.  He had a strong sense of duty.  Then, he had what farmers call a long head; was excellent in working out the sum for himself; in arguing his case and convincing you fairly and firmly.  Then, it turned out that he was a great worker; had prodigious faculty of performance; worked easily.  A good worker is so rare; everybody has some disabling quality.  In a host of young men that start together and promise so many brilliant leaders for the next age, each fails on trial; one by bad health, one by conceit, or by love of pleasure, or lethargy, or an ugly temper – each has some disqualifying fault that throws him out of the career.  But this man was sound to the core, cheerful, persistent, all right for labor. 

Then he had a vast good nature, which made him tolerant and accessible to all, fair-minded, affable.  And how this good nature became a noble humanity everyone will remember.  Then his broad good humor, running easily into jocular talk, in which he delighted and in which he excelled, was a rich gift to this wise man.  It enabled him to meet every kind of man and every rank in society; to take off the edge of the severest decisions; and to catch with true instinct the temper of every company he addressed. 

He is the author of a multitude of good sayings, so disguised as pleasantries that it is certain they had not reputation at first but as jests; and only later, by the very acceptance they find in the mouths of millions, turn out to be the wisdom of the hour.  The weight and penetration of many passages in his letters, messages and speeches are destined hereafter to wider fame.  What pregnant definitions; what unerring common sense; what foresight; and, on great occasion, what lofty, what humane tone!  His brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion.\

His occupying the chair of state was a triumph of the good sense of mankind.  This middle-class country had got a middle-class president, at last.  This man grew according to the need.  His mind mastered the problem of the day; as the problem grew, so did his comprehension of it.  Rarely was man so fitted to the event.  In the midst of fears and jealousies this man wrought incessantly with all his might and his honesty, laboring to find what the people wanted, and how to obtain that.  It cannot be said there is any exaggeration of his worth.  If ever a man was fairly tested, he was.  There was no lack of resistance, nor of slander, nor of ridicule. 

Then, what an occasion was the whirlwind of the war.  Here was place for no fair-weather sailor; the new pilot was hurried to the helm in a tornado.  In four year – four years of battle-days – his endurance, his magnanimity were sorely tried and never found wanting.  There, by his courage, his justice, his even temper, his fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in the center of a heroic epoch.  He is the true history of the American people in his time.  Step by step he walked before them; slow with their slowness, quickening his march by theirs, the true representative of this continent: an entirely public man; father of his country, the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue.

The ancients believed in a serene and beautiful Genius which ruled in the affairs of nations; which, with a slow but stern justice, carried forward the fortunes of certain chosen houses, and securing at last the firm prosperity of the favorites of Heaven.  It was too narrow a view of the Eternal Nemesis.  There is a serene Providence which rules the fate of nations, which makes little account of time, little of one generation or race, makes no account of disasters, conquers alike by what is called defeat or by what is called victory, thrusts aside obstruction, crushes everything immoral as inhuman, and obtains the ultimate triumph of the best race by the sacrifice of everything which resists the moral laws of the world.  It makes its own instruments, creates the man for the time, trains him in poverty, inspires his genius, and arms him for his task. 

[condensed by Mahendra Meghani from a speech delivered at the funeral services held in Concord, MA on April 19, 1865 for the martyred President.]


Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, USA.  At Harvard University, he won prizes for his oratory and essays.  He was forced to interrupt his courses because of eye trouble.  In 1826 he began a career as a minister.  He married Ellen Tucker in 1829, despite the fact that she was already ill with tuberculosis; she died two years later at the age of nineteen.

After a visit to Europe where he met prominent authors, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts.  What would eventually be called the Transcendental Club had begun to form around him.  The spiritual ferment of the Concord group found expression in Emerson’s first significant work, the essay “Nature”.

Emerson became closely associated with Henry David Thoreau.  He gave up preaching and collaborated with Margaret Fuller on the journal The Dial, in which he began to publish his essays.  These appeared in book form as Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series.  He became more involved in political issues, launching attacks on slavery.  His essays had made him an internationally known figure.  He published further collections of his essays – Nature, Addresses and Lectures and others while lecturing against slavery.


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches