August 07, 2018

Woman Of Substance

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It was entirely due to CORNELIA SORABJI’s efforts that the legal profession was opened to women in India in 1924

Cornelia Sorabji occupies pride of place as India’s first woman lawyer, the first woman to practice law in India and Britain, Bombay University’s first female graduate to be admitted to the Allahabad High Court, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, and the first Indian to study at any British University.

Born in 1866, Cornelia was among nine children born to Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, a Parsi, and his wife, Francina Ford, a Parsi, adopted and raised by a British couple. While Cornelia was homeschooled by her father at several of the couple’s mission schools, she was initially refused admission to Bombay University on grounds that no woman had ever been to the University. She was admitted only later and went on to matriculate at the age of 16. Cornelia proved all the naysayers wrong when, in six years’ time, she topped her college in English Literature. Once again though, gender came in the way of her getting a scholarship to an English University. Help arrived in the form of Mary Hobhouse, Adelaide Manning, Sir William Wedderburn, and Florence Nightingale, who spent from their own pockets to fund Cornelia’s scholarship. At first, she was barred from studying law; however, thanks to academic-philosopher Benjamin Jowett, Cornelia became the first woman to take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1892. What was expected to be learned in five years, Cornelia set out to achieve in just two. But the examiner initially refused to examine her and later gave her a third-class in the post-graduate exam. Despite passing the exam, Cornelia could not collect her degree for another 30 years as was the norm in those days. She worked for a year at Lee & Pemberton, a solicitors’ firm in London, where the husband of one of the women who had funded her scholarship helped her get permission to read at the Lincoln’s Inn library. The same year, Cornelia completed her Bachelors of Law and decided to return to India with a view to empowering the women there.

legal_profession_women_in_IndiaTo her disappointment, however, the then Chief Justice of Bombay passed an order disallowing legal practitioners from employing women. Cornelia then undertook an undergraduate degree in law from Bombay University hoping that this would ease her problems but failed in the program. Surprisingly, it was not the British Raj but the Maharajas who offered Cornelia an opportunity to practice law in the Bombay presidency, only to restrict her to trivial cases. Not the one to give up, Cornelia continued to fight for recognition as a barrister and finally decided to become a legal advisor to the British Raj on the state of purdah nasheens aka secluded women in the country. At the time, these women wore purdah and lived a dreary existence where their education was stopped the moment they got married and they were forbidden from any form of communication with the outside world. Worst of all, in cases of dispute over property, which these women owned considerably, they could not get legal help as all lawyers out there were men. In 1904, the then Secretary of State for India, Lord Broderick, granted Cornelia special permission to enter appeals on behalf of these purdah nasheens before British agents of the principalities of Indore and Kathiawar. For two decades thereafter, Cornelia worked as a practicing lawyer, helping more than 600 women (purdah nasheens, child brides, and widows) and orphans fight their legal battles, sometimes free of cost. Cornelia not only protected her female clients against fraud and murder but also helped them gain independence and forge their own identity. It is entirely due to Cornelia’s efforts that the legal profession was opened to women in India in 1924. Cornelia set up practice in Calcutta only to retire in 1929. She moved to England and continued to live there, visiting India every now and then until her death in 1954. The women of India, especially all women lawyers, will forever remain indebted to this great lady.

Disclaimer – Statements and opinions expressed in this article are those from the editorial and are well researched from various sources. The content in the article is purely informative in nature.

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