Cornelia Sorabji, who was born in Nashik on November 15, 1866, was not only India’s first woman lawyer, she was also the first woman to practice law in both India and Britain, the first woman to study at Bombay University, and the first Indian national to study at Oxford – or any British university for that matter.
Sorabji was one of Reverend Sorabji Karsedji and Francina Ford’s nine children, and she always had her parents’ support when it came to her education and career, since her parents were strong supporters of female child education.
Sorabji is claimed to have received a scholarship to continue her studies in England after graduating from college with honours. When that didn’t happen, Sorabji wrote to the National Indian Association, requesting assistance to continue his studies.
People like Adelaide Manning, Florence Nightingale, and Sir William Wedderburn, by chance, stepped forward to help fund Sorabji. She was soon on her way to Oxford University, where she would be the first Indian student.
Despite the encouragement, that could not have been easy. Even in England at the time, higher education was met with scepticism. Sorabji did not receive a degree from Oxford University after completing her studies at Somerville College in 1894.
When Sorabji returned to India in 1894, he began campaigning for the rights of Purdanashins, Hindu women who were not permitted to converse with males other than their spouses. As a result, the ladies were unable to articulate and defend their rights in court.
At the time, neither India nor England allowed women to fight in courts or practise law. Cornelia Sorabji then petitioned the India Office for female legal advisers in provincial courts for women and minors.
Sorabji took the Bombay University LLB exams to obtain a law degree, which she was denied at Oxford, and became the first woman to graduate from the institution.
Despite passing the pleader test in the Allahabad High Court in 1899, she was not admitted as a barrister until 1923, when the laws governing women lawyers were modified.
Sorabji was appointed Lady Assistant to the Bengal Court of Wards in 1904, and she later worked in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa (now Odisha), and Assam.
Cornelia Sorabji assisted and battled for approximately 600 mothers and children over the next 20 years. According to legend, she did so without charging a price.
Sorabji began practising law in Kolkata after Indian courts opened their doors to women lawyers in 1923. Even back then, in a patriarchal courtroom and culture, Sorabji was routinely barred from pleading before the court and assigned to clerical work.
In 1929, Sorabji retired and relocated to London, where she died in 1954.
Years later, when her image as a feminist icon grew, Sorabji’s tremendous talent and charisma were finally recognised in India and internationally. She was honoured at Lincoln’s Inn in London in 2012.