Cornelia Sorabji: The First Woman To Graduate From Bombay University & Study At Oxford

Cornelia Sorabji: The First Woman To Graduate From Bombay University & Study At Oxford

In 1978, Management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase ‘glass ceiling’, referring to the invisible barrier to success that many women come up against in their careers. While the term was only coined about five decades ago, for centuries now women have been breaking glass ceilings and doing so much more to advance their cause.

Take, for instance, Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to graduate from Bombay University and also the first woman to read law at Oxford University in 1892, also making her the first Indian woman to study at a British university. She also later became the first woman to practice law in both India and England. From growing up in a Christian Parsi family in Nasik to being a pioneer for women’s education; hers is a story of resilience, fighting systemic barriers, and hope.

Back in the late 1800s or the early 1900s for that matter, women’s education wasn’t afforded its due importance and like many other trailblazers, Sorabji had to overcome a lot of obstacles not only to earn an education but also to practice as a female lawyer. She was truly an inspiring figure for female lawmakers. Despite excelling in her studies she wasn’t eligible for a degree from Oxford owing to her gender. Oxford only began granting actual bona fide degrees to its female students about three decades later in 1922.

Unable to practice in England, she returned to India but found that the situation was similarly averse to lady advocates. In an almost entirely male-dominated field, she wasn’t being given her due. Undeterred by this, she became involved in petitioning both India and Britain on behalf of purdahnashins (veiled women who were barred from interacting with men which meant that they were denied access to the formal legal system along with their inheritance and other such assets that would otherwise legally be theirs) and legally championing their rights. She also became actively involved in other forms of social advocacy.

Her cause for the legal rights of purdahnashins led them to obtain rights to study nursing and allowed many of these women the crucial opportunity to leave communities that were extremely isolating. Despite all her groundbreaking work, Sorabji was only recognized as a barrister in 1924 which was almost two decades after she had been appointed as the Lady Legal Assistant to the Court of Wards in Bengal and almost a year after she was called to the English Bar.

Even after avenues opened up in the legal profession for women in India, Sorabji’s role would be limited to preparing briefings and opinions while her male counterparts would plead cases before the court. She retired to London in 1929, where she died in 1954.

Despite all the challenges, the limitations in her professional career due to patriarchal systems and the small and big triumphs her work is instrumental for both women’s education and for female lawyers in the country today.

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