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Monday, April 18, 2011

First Indian Woman Barrister

Cornelia Sorabji (15 November 1866 – 6 July 1954) was the first female barrister from India, a social reformer, and a writer. She was also the first female graduate from Bombay University, and the first woman in the world to read law at Oxford.Sorabji was born at Nashik in the Bombay Presidency, India, on 15 November 1866. She was one of nine children of Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, a Parsi Christian, and his wife, Francina Ford, an Indian who had been adopted and raised by a British couple. Ford, who believed that education must begin at home with women, helped to establish several girls’ schools in Poona (now Pune). Due in part to her influential social position, Ford was often consulted by local women in matters pertaining to inheritance and property rights. Many of Sorabji’s later educational and career decisions would be heavily influenced by her mother.

As a child Sorabji received her education both at home, with her missionary father, and at mission schools. In 1892, she was given special permission by Congregational Decree, due in large part to the petitions of her English friends, to take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford University, becoming the first woman to ever do so.Upon returning to India in 1894, Sorabji became involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who, according to Hindu law, were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on the behalf of the purdahnashins before British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities, but she was unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system. In the hopes of remedying that, Sorabji presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and pleader’s examination of Allahabad high court in 1899. Yet, despite her successes, Sorabji would not be recognized as a barrister until the law which barred women from practicing was changed in 1924.

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. In the next 20 years of service, it is estimated that Sorabji helped over 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, sometimes at no charge. She would later write about many of these cases in her work Between the Twilights and her two autobiographies. In 1924, the legal profession was opened to women in India, and Sorabji began practicing in Calcutta. However, due to male bias and discrimination, she was confined to preparing opinions on cases, rather than pleading them before the court.Sorabji retired from the high court in 1929, and settled in London, visiting India during the winters. She died at her London Home, Northumberland House, Green Lanes, Finsbury Park, on 6 July 1954.

At the turn of the century, Sorabji was also actively involved in 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. For her services to the Indian nation, she was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal in 1909. Although an Anglophile, Sorabji had no desire to see “the wholesale imposition of a British legal system on Indian society any more than she sought the transplantation of other Western values.” Early in her career, Sorabji had supported the campaign for Indian Independence, relating women’s rights to the capacity for self government. Although she greatly supported traditional Indian life and culture, Sorabji did a great deal to promote the movement to reform Hindu laws regarding child marriage and the position of widows. She often worked alongside fellow reformer and friend Pandita Ramabai. 

Nevertheless, she believed that the true impetus behind social change was education and that, until the majority of illiterate women had access to it, the suffrage movement would be a failure.By the late 1920s, however, Sorabji had adopted a staunch anti-nationalist attitude; believing that nationalism violated the beliefs, customs, and traditions of the country’s Hindu ‘orthodox’. By 1927, she was actively involved in promoting support for the Empire and preserving the rights of the Hindu Orthodox. She favorably viewed the polemical attack on Indian self-rule in Katherine Mayo's 1927 book Mother India, 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. One such failed project was the League for Infant Welfare, Maternity, and District Nursing.

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