Cornelia Sorabji was not only the first Indian woman to practice law but also the first female graduate from Bombay University. During her career, she advocated social reforms, standing up for women’s education and raised her voice against the bias they faced in the education system. Despite the times in which she lived, Cornelia Sorabji never gave up on her journey to pursue higher education, thus becoming India’s first female lawyer.

Cornelia became the first woman to graduate from Bombay University. Following that, she also went on to take the post-graduate Bachelor of Civil Law exam at Somerville College, Oxford. She was the first woman to ever do so.

Why We Should Know Cornelia Sorabji

Born in 1866 to Parsi parents, Cornelia Sorabji had eight siblings. Her parents had a big influence on her while growing up. Sorabji’s father was a Christian missionary who played a role in convincing Bombay University in admitting women to its degree courses. Her mother, on the other hand, is known to have established several girls’ schools in Pune. Cornelia became the first woman to graduate from Bombay University. Following that, she also went on to take the post-graduate Bachelor of Civil Law exam at Somerville College, Oxford. She was the first woman to ever do so. Sorabji has another first to her name- she was also the first woman to be admitted as a reader to the Codrington Library of All Souls College, Oxford.

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What Makes Her Badass

Cornelia Sorabji did a lot of work for women in India, especially thosw belonging to marginalized communities. Cornelia returned to India in 1894. Then, she became an advocate for the rights of the purdahnashins – women who were forbidden from interacting with men outside of their families. Sorabji could enter pleas on behalf of these women. However, she couldn’t take up their cases in front of a court of law. The blanket ban that forbade women from practising law in the Indian Legal System prevented her from doing so.

Cornelia took the LLB examination at Bombay University. After that, she sat for the Pleader’s Examination of the Allahabad High Court. She succeeded in both of them. However, due to a discriminatory law against women, she was not recognized as a barrister. She eventually won purdahnashins the right to train as nurses. In 1904, she was Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal. By 1907, she worked in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam to represent women and minorities in provincial courts.

During her twenty-year-long career, she helped an estimated 600 women and children fight legal battles.

Biggest Battles She Fought

Perhaps the biggest battles Sorabji had to fight were against societal patriarchy itself. As the first woman lawyer, she faced the brunt of discrimination. Sorabji wasn’t recognised as a barrister untill 1923 when the law that discriminated against women and barred them from practising was finally changed. in her zeal to help the socially ostracized communities, she often worked without pay.

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During her twenty-year-long career, she helped an estimated 600 women and children fight legal battles. In 1924,  Cornelia began practicing in Kolkata. However, due to a largely patriarchal legal system, she was confined to preparing arguments and opinions on cases in absentia. The authorities did not allow her to plead cases in person, before the courts. Many did not take her work seriously. She had to fight only the frivolous cases — the most frivolous one perhaps was when she was asked to defend an elephant against somebody who had removed its banana groves!

Lessons We Can Learn From Her

In spite of being an Anglophone, Cornelia Sorabji advocated the independence of India from British Rule. She drew parallels between women’s rights and the capacity for self-governance. Sorabji was also an ardent advocate for the reform of Hindu laws. She wanted to eliminate child marriage. Her work was also targetted towards uplifting widows, intending to put an end to the cruelty they were subjected to.

Also Read: Kadambini Ganguly, The First Female Practitioner Of Western Medicine 

Legacy Of Cornelia Sorabji

Sorabji was an ambitious, courageous woman who resists easy classification. Many regard her as a feminist who paved the way for women in India in the field of law. However, while this is true, she also was against the Independence movement and Gandhi, in the later part of her life. A complicated figure, nevertheless, she has escaped the pages of history. Her legacy, however, must live on. A woman with a profusion of achievements; a champion of women’s rights; and a woman who changed the course of history, by forever changing the approach towards women’s education and opening the legal profession to them.

Prapti is an intern at SheThePeople.TV

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