Trailblazing barrister (1866-1954)
CCornelia Sorabji (15 November 1866–6 July 1954), was the first Indian female graduate from Bombay University; the first woman to study law at Somerville College, Oxford University (the first Indian national to study at any British university); the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain. Her bust was unveiled at Lincoln’s Inn, London in 2012, and a Google Doodle celebrated her 151st birthday on 15 November 2017.
Born in Devlali near Nashik to a converted Parsi family, she was one of nine children. Her father, Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, was a missionary and her mother, Francina Ford, adopted and raised by a British couple, helped to establish several girls’ schools in the then Poona, and was often consulted by local women in inheritance and property rights.
Her childhood was spent in Belgaum and Pune, she was both home and mission schooled. Topping the Presidency through Deccan College in her final degree examination, she was denied a government scholarship to study further in England. So she took up a temporary position as an English professor at a men’s college in Gujarat.
As the first female graduate of Bombay University, in 1888, assisted by the National Indian Association, Sorabji completed her further education. Arriving in England in 1889, given special permission by a Congregational Decree, she took the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Somerville College, Oxford in 1892, becoming the first woman to ever do so.
In 1894, she returned and got involved in social and advisory work for the purrdahnashins – women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. They owned considerable property, but had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sadly, Sorabji was unable to defend them in court, since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system.
She presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897, and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Her successes notwithstanding, she was not recognised as a barrister until the law barring women from practising was changed in 1923. Sorabji had begun petitioning the India Office as early as 1902 to provide for a female legal advisor to represent women and minors in provincial courts. She was appointed Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal in 1904, and was by 1907 working in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam.
Over 20 years, Sorabji helped over 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, sometimes at no charge. In 1924, with the legal profession opened to women in India, she began practising in Kolkata. However, male bias and discrimination, confined her to preparing opinions on cases, rather than pleading them before the court. Retiring from the High Court in 1929, she settled in London, visiting India during the winters.
For her services to the Indian nation, she was awarded the ‘Kaisar-i-Hind’ gold medal in 1909. Despite being an Anglophile, Sorabji did not want ‘the wholesale imposition’ of a British legal system or other Western values, on Indian society. Early in her career, she even supported the Indian Independence movement, but by the late 1920s, she adopted a staunch anti-nationalist attitude, believing that the British needed to be in India in order to counter Hindu dominance.
Cornelia’s approach was challenged, some of her words misappropriated, and her work maligned in some circles. Her life was opaque in many ways, and she spoke through literature, and, at times, simply avoided the purportedly-factual narrative altogether.
Being a pianist, she taught classical music at one of her mother’s schools in Pune. Despite being anglicised, she was by no means cut off from her Indian roots, insisting in later years, not only on wearing sarees, but also apparently embroidered them. Having dealt with neuralgia throughout her life, she died at her home, Northumberland House, in London.