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Remembering Cornelia Sorabji: India’ first woman lawyer

In 1931, she moved back to England and permanently settled there, visiting India during winters. She died on July 6, 1954 at 88. Cornelia was unmarried.

By Newsd
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Remembering Cornelia Sorabji: India' first woman lawyer

Cornelia Sorabji was an Indian lawyer, social reformer and writer. She was the first female graduate from Bombay University, and the first woman to study law at Oxford University.

She was the first female graduate from Bombay University; the first woman to study Law at the prestigious Oxford University as no Indian woman has ever gone to study in England before; she was the first female advocate in India and she was also the first woman to practice Law even in Britain. A lady with numerous records, Cornelia Sorabji, led a life guided by her own passion and faithfully followed her heart. In 2012, a bronze bust of hers was unveiled at Lincoln’s Inn, the High Court Complex in London by the prominent lawyers of the United Kingdom as a mark of respect to the first ever lady to don the lawyer’s gown in their country. A Google Doodle celebrated her 151 birthday on November 15, 2017.

Cornelia Sorabji was born in 1866 in Nasik, Maharashtra. Her career path was heavily influenced by her parents, who advocated for her and her siblings who were altogether six sisters and a brother to become leaders in education and social work. She spent her childhood initially in Belgaum and in Pune. After homeschooling by her parents, and attending mission schools, Cornelia was the first woman admitted to Deccan College, Poona where she graduated with a first class degree. In fact, her parents encouraged all their daughters to attend Bombay University, but every time their applications were rejected as in those days female applicants were not considered for admission. But it was only their sixth daughter, Cornelia finally broke through the barrier of entry. At Deccan College, she pursued Literature and completed a five year course in one year. She was the top ranked student of her class. But as she was a female, she was denied the Oxford scholarship that was usually given for the top student of the year. But a few prominent English women in Poona and Mumbai raised funds to send her to Oxford. Cornelia thus went to Oxford in 1889 and joined Somerville College there.

At Oxford, Cornelia took Law and in 1892 she became the first woman to pass Bachelor of Civil Laws (BCL) examination but Oxford would not grant her the degree as no woman till then was allowed to register as advocate. At Oxford, she held the record as the first woman student till the arrival of the daughters of Maharaja Dhuleep Singh, (the deposed king of Punjab and the son of Ranjith Singh) Bhamba and Catherine in 1890. She was thus the first Indian national to study at any British University. At Oxford, she was drawn close to great Indologists and Sanskrit scholars like Max Muller and Monier Williams. She also had an enduring friendship with Florence Nightingale.

After returning from Oxford, Cornelia began a long search for a legal post in India. She got involved in social work on behalf of the Purdanashins, women who were veiled and forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. As a solicitor, she prepared cases for women clients first in the Princely state of Kathiawar in Gujarat. She helped altogether 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, many a time charging no fees from them. She also completed an LL.B course from Bombay University in 1897. Although it was not possible for women to become barristers until 1923, she continued to read law at the Solicitors’ firms. For some time she joined her younger brother Dick in a brother-Sister law practice, in Allahabad.

After Oxford began awarding degrees to women in 1920, and the London Bar agreed to allow women with Law degrees to practice in law, Cornelia travelled to England to collect her degree and she was called to the Bar in 1922. She returned to Calcutta where she enrolled as a Barrister at the High Court. She thus became the first woman to practice law in India and in Britain.

Cornelia Sorabji was involved in many social reform activities. She was actively associated with the Bengal branch of National Council for Women in India. The Federation of University Women and Bengal League of Social Service. She extensively toured in Bengal, Bihar and Assam on her social work. For her services, Cornelia was awarded the Kaiser- i- Hind Gold medal in 1907 by the government of India.

She was a great votary for abolition of child marriages and sati practice. She worked alongside Pandit Ramabhai, the renowned social activist of Maharashtra. She gave up her practice in 1929 and devoted her time entirely to social work.

Though a nationalist initially, Cornelia Sorabji gradually became an anglophile, and towed the British line in her political leanings. She courted controversies by supporting the American writer, Katherine Mayo who in her book, Mother India (1927), defended British rule in India, the book which Gandhi called as “Gutter women’s Report”. Cornelia even opposed Gandhi when he launched the civil disobedience movement. She toured India and the U.S.A. to propagate her political views and thus became unpopular among the nationalist leaders.

In 1931, she moved back to England and permanently settled there, visiting India during winters. She died on July 6, 1954 at 88. Cornelia was unmarried.

Besides being an active social worker, Cornelia was also a prolific writer. She wrote a number of books, short stories and numerous articles for journals. Her two autobiographies were, India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji (1934) and India Recalled (1936). Today, there is an attractive large portrait of Cornelia Sorabji in the prestigious National Portrait Gallery, in London.

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