She was the first woman lawyer in India. She helped bring justice to many women who faced the practice of the veil and men’s oppression, and she was doing so without any government support. He fought this battle alone and for all of them he risked his life many times.
There were many deadly attacks on them but each time they remained safe and struggled to achieve their goal.
He is also credited with introducing women to the legal field and allowing them to practice law in India and the United Kingdom.
Her name was Cornelia Sorabji.
The BBC’s Claire Bose speaks to her nephew and historian, Sir Richard Sarabji, on the BBC’s Witness History program, who has said many interesting things about Cornelia.
She described how Cornelia fought alone to not only make a place for herself in society but also to save the lives of many women.
How did it start
Cornelia was born in November 1866 in Nashik. At that time India was under British rule. His parents were Parsis but he later converted to Christianity. He was influenced by the British Raj and believed that the path to the success of his children passed through England.
Cornelia excelled in her studies and then became the first woman to be admitted to Bombay University. He also received scholarships to study further in the UK.
She became the first woman to study law at Oxford University, but in the final exam she was not allowed to sit with men, which she appealed against.
Shortly before the exams finally began, the university changed its rules and allowed them to take the exam. In 1892, she became the first woman in Britain to be allowed to take the Bachelor of Civil Law examination.
“I wanted to study law and when my wish came true, I felt my dream came true,” she wrote in a letter.
Richard Sorabjee said: “She seemed very calm but inside she wanted to know a lot. There was a kind of commotion inside them.
The struggle in India after Britain
She returned to India after completing her law studies at Oxford. Here she wanted to earn a living as a barrister, but at that time women in India and Britain had no right to practice as lawyers.
At that time there were many independent states in India. Cornelia was to visit several royal families. There they found that the women of these families had to live under the rule of men. They had no rights.
In those days, there was a strict tradition of veil in India. Women were not even allowed to talk to men outside the house or even look at them from afar.
Cornelia learned that many women were victims of male abuse in the family. He also had no right to family property.
Women were also killed for raising their voices. Because outsiders were barred from entering homes and women were barred from going out, there was no way for police officers to reach out about the persecution of women.
In such a situation, Cornelia decided to help these women. She appealed to the government to make her a legal adviser to the government to stop the oppression and justice of women in the Hindu and Muslim communities. But the government rejected his demand, citing the rules of the day.
Even after that, he did not give up and decided to do it alone. For the next 20 years, she played the role of a lawyer as well as a social worker and sometimes a spy, bringing more than 600 women their rights, justice and freedom from male oppression.
Gained hostility from many states
For some reason, they would enter these families and make friends with women and try to find out about their condition. And then with the help of police and officers get them out of trouble.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything, I have to leave my journey in the middle,” he wrote. But friends kept encouraging me and in the end I succeeded. ‘
Richard Sorabjee explains: “Once she was providing legal assistance to a woman whose in-laws refused to pay her alimony. Then, through Cornelia’s efforts, they finally agreed to meet the woman. He indicated that he had changed his mind and was ready to pay the woman.
He also bought a dress for the woman he wanted to give as a gift. But Cornelia had some doubts. His mind was very sharp. When they checked the dress, they found that it was all poisonous.
In this way he saved the life of this woman. Cornelia herself was attacked several times. Many states began to consider him their enemy. He believed that women should be subjugated to men and that Cornelia was fighting for their rights and trying to damage their culture.
Once a royal family invited him as a guest and sent him to his room for breakfast. The stench from the food made Cornelia realize something was wrong. They did not eat that food. An examination later revealed that the food had been poisoned.
When the judge said ‘you know nothing but English’
Many years later, in 1919, the United Kingdom finally changed the law and allowed women to enter the legal field, paving the way for women to become lawyers and judges.
The change in the rules also opened the way for Cornelia to become a lawyer and she became the first woman lawyer in India.
She wrote: ‘I wanted to do this so that I could say that women can do everything. So that the women who are facing the atrocities of men can see a ray of hope.
But even after becoming a lawyer, his path was not easy. Because at that time judges were prejudiced against women. He took the pleas of male lawyers very seriously but did not give due importance to female lawyers.
He wrote that once a judge said of him, ‘You know English well. But you don’t know anything else. ‘
Some credit goes to women for entering the field of advocacy.
Helena Normenton, Britain’s first female barrister, said: ‘Cornelia Sorabjee strongly defended women’s rights. Thanks to the fierce struggle she waged and struggled to allow women to become advocates, she has become a lawyer today.
After retiring from law, he settled in London. She died in London in 1954 at the age of 88.