It is not every time we come across achievements of women during early 20th century. The era was of men. They fought, they ruled. The notion, when it comes to women, were to sit home and cook food. Usually married at an early age, they never earned the privilege to study much.
But among them was one woman who defied all the norms and stood out as India’s first Woman ever to step out in the crowd of men and earn herself a name!
Cornelia Sorabji, born on 15th November 1866, was an Indian woman who was the first female to graduate from Bombay University, the first woman (indeed the first national) to study law from Oxford University, London and the first female advocate in India and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.
Born in Devali to a Parsi, she was one of the nine children who was adopted and raised by a British couple. Her education was an inspiration from her parents; her father who convinced Bombay University to allow women to their degree programs and her mother who was an active socialist who established many girl’s schools in Pune.
After becoming the first female graduate from Bombay University, Sorabji wrote to National Indian Association for assisting in completing her education. She arrived in England in 1889 and stayed with Manning and Hobhouse, who funded her education. In 1892, she was given permission to take Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Somerville College, Oxford, hence becoming the first ever woman and Indian to do so.
Her legal career began in 1904, where she was appointed as a Legal Assistance to the Cout of the Wards of Bengal and by 1907, she started working in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam. For next 20 years, she provided social services and fought legal battles for women, sometimes even for free. In 1924, the legal profession was opened to women in India, and Sorabji began practising in Kolkata. 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.
In addition to her work, she also wrote a number of short stories such as Love and Life beyond the Purdhah, Indian Tales of the Great Ones among Men, Women and Bird-People, The Purdahnashin, and case studies of her legal work, Between the Twilights. She also wrote two autobiographies, India Calling – The memories of Cornelia Sorabji and India Recalled.
She died at her London home on 6th July, 1954. In 2012, her glory was unveiled at Lincoln’s Inn, London.