A woman of firsts in many things, Cornelia Sorabji was the first Indian woman to become a lawyer, overcoming all the odds and challenges that society threw up on her.
Being a guiding lamp for many women in India, she was the first woman to graduate from Bombay University and also the first to study law at Oxford University.
In November 1866 in Nashik, she was the eighth child born to a Christian missionary Reverend Sorabji Karsedji and Francina Ford, a social reformer who had helped to establish several girls’ school in Poona, was a social worker. Cornelia’s mother left a great influence on Cornelia’s career and decisions in life.
She studied in Deccan college in Pune after her schooling and had topped in her final degree examination but was not entitled to the government scholarship for further studies in England. After becoming the first female graduate of Bombay University, she wrote to the National Indian Association for further education assistance. She came to England with the help of the contributed funds.
In 1892, she became the first woman to pass the Bachelor of Civil Law exam at Somerville College, Oxford but was denied the degree as at that time women were not allowed to register and practice law.
Cornelia organised purdah parties for the secluded women in which no men could see the one arriving.
“THE DOORS INDEED HAVE BEEN PUSHED OPEN, AND WOMEN ARE TIMIDLY ADVENTURING THE STREET, ALBEIT WITH VEILED FACES.”
Return to India:
In 1894, she started social work for the purdahnashins, women who were not allowed to communicate with the men other than in their family. She filed a plea for these women who had property but no one to give them legal advice.
Nothing could stop her and she applied for the LL. B examination in the Bombay University and pleader’s examination in Allahabad High Court in 1899 as she was not allowed to practice in the court of law. Filing in this attempt, she started petitioning in Indian Office.
When the CJ in Bombay, Sir Charles Sargent instructed solicitors not to employ a woman, he told her “You see you are not a man, and no woman should be allowed to meddle with the law.”
But this did not stop her from only growing more and achieving the impossible.
Her encounter with Gandhi:
When Mahatma Gandhi was attending the round table conference in London in 1932, she tried and got the permission to interview him for a British journal but was dismissed as she had an argument with him on the anti-British approach which got reported in India and England.
She helped over 600 women across India and she went to England in 1920 to get her degree when the London Bar allowed women to practice law. In 1924, she started practicing in Kolkata. She wrote many books that cited various aspects of life and law.
After harsh treatment was meted out in the Allahabad court, Cornelia decided that
“I MUST USE EVERY ENDEAVOUR TO BRING ABOUT THAT RESULT FOR THE SAKE OF ALL WOMEN, AS WELL AS MY OWN.”
A statue of her was made at Lincoln’s Inn, London in 2012, and also a Google-Doodle was made to celebrate her 151st birthday in 2017.
Scholarship programme in the name of Cornelia:
The Cornelia Sorabji Law Programme at Somerville’s Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development was launched in 2016 where scholarship is provided to help and support Indian lawyers who intended to serve their country after completing their studies.
She passed away on 6th July 1954 in the UK, leaving behind a golden path for women to follow and break the glass ceilings.