Our story is incomplete sans shedding light on the incredible journey of our afflatus-Cornelia Sorabji (1 November 1866 – 6 July 1954). Our muse hero was the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, the first ever female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.
For someone, who defied social barriers to become a revolutionary barrister and represent gazillions of unheard women, we admire her strength; and draw ours from her tale.
EARLY LIFE, FAMILY AND EDUCATION
Cornelia Sorabji was born to a Parsi Family in Devlali, Nashik, then under British colonial rule. Her father was the Reverend Sorabji Karsedji and mother wife Francina Ford, an Indian girl raised by British foster parents. She was one of their nine children. Cornelia’s father was a revered missionary, who realized his daughter’s supreme academic abilities early and played a pivotal role in persuading Bombay administrators to go against the rules and admit her to the Deccan College as a degree student.
Cornelia’s mother; Francina was an instrumental proto-feminist who had established and run several schools for girls in Pune and would advise women on asserting their property rights.
Cornelia was awarded her law degree with flying colours and top honours in 1988, but was not granted a scholarship to study in England. This setback didn’t deter her a tad bit in her determination to achieve her mission of fighting for people’s rights.
She then enrolled at a men’s college in Gujarat as a professor and simultaneously appealed to the National Indian Association for funds to study overseas. With an overwhelming trust and response; she was supported by Mary Hobhouse, wife of a prominent Council of India member, Florence Nightingale, writer Adelaide Banning and Scottish politician Sir William Wedderburn.
The unyielding beacon of inspiration; Cornelia went on to pursue Bachelor of Civil Laws at Somerville College, Oxford. She created Indian and British history by being the first woman to do so.
Isn’t that truly encouraging?! We are always so energized by her empowering journey.
Post her graduation and return to India, in 1894, Cornelia Sorabji became active in the social and advisory activities of ‘purdahnashins, ie. women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. ‘
The purdahnashins possessed valuable land and properties but were prohibited any formal legal representation.
Cornelia Sorabji was then granted special permission to plea on their behalf before the British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities.
But the glitch here was that as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system.
In an endeavour as an antidote to this trial, she appeared for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899.
Her tribulations didn’t end there; Sorabji would not be recognized as a barrister due to the law that barred women from practicing
But, victory came when the law was amended in 1923.
Sorabji began petitioning the India Office as early as 1902 to provide for a female legal advisor to represent women and minors in provincial courts. In 1904, she was appointed Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal and by 1907, due to the need for such representation. Sorabji was working in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam.
(What follows next is a true tale of inspiration in all its essence, in every aspect.)
During the succeeding two decades of her service, Cornelia Sorabji changed the lives of over 600 women and orphans. She brought light in their despair by being their knight in armour to fight legal battles, sometimes at no charge.
She also penned case studies of these encounters in her books: ‘Between the Twilights’ and her two autobiographies.- India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji (London: Nisbet & Co., 1934) and India Recalled (London: Nisbet & Co., 1936).
In 1924, women were formally allowed to practice law and Sorabji began practising in Kolkata.
She retired from the high court in 1929 and went on to settle in London, visiting India during the winters.
SOCIAL AND REFORM WORK
The late nineteenth century saw Cornelia Sorabji actively contribute to numerous social reforms.
She was associated with the Bengal branch of the National Council for Women in India, the Federation of University Women, and the Bengal League of Social Service for Women. Her battles and contribution for the country and India’s women were acknowledged when she was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal in 1909. Even though she was an Anglophile herself, Cornelia Sorabji refused to view the wholesale imposition of a British legal system on Indian society any more than she sought the transplantation of other Western values.
During the initial days of her career, Cornelia fought for Indian Independence, drawing a close interplay of women’s rights and the capacity for self-government. Though she was an advocate of Indian values and culture, Sorabji campaigned for revoking Hindu laws like child marriage and Sati by widows.
She would often work with fellow reformer and friend Pandita Ramabai. She eagerly believed that the true catalyst of social change would be educating and liberating the masses of illiterate Indian women; without which the suffrage movement would inevitably fail.
CORNELIA SORABJIS’S PERSPECTIVES…
As the 1920s drew to an end, she began to breed a strong anti-nationalist attitude.
She believed that the British’s presence in the country was imperative to challenge primitive Hindu notions and beliefs. By 1927, she enthusiastically supported and contributed to conserving the rule of the British.
She favourably viewed the polemical attack on Indian self-rule in Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India (1927), and condemned Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience. She toured India and the United States to propagate her political views which would end up costing her the support needed to undertake later social reforms.