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Cornelia Sorabji- The Feminist of the 19th Century

Posted: June 21, 2020

First woman to practice law in India and Britain,first Indian to study at a British University in 1886,first woman barrister. Cornelia was unconventional and an important woman.

Cornelia Sorabji is a controversial figure, hated by some, loved by others. Born in 1866, Cornelia belonged to a Parsi converted Christian family. This decision made them unacceptable in society. They faced riots and violence from many communities, thus, for survival, they joined hands with the colonials. Away from all Indian communities, Cornelia felt drawn to Britain. When she grew up, she became the first Indian to attend Oxford University. She studied the law but didn’t get a degree just because she was a woman.

Just because she was a woman.

Aiming to practice law, Cornelia wasn’t supported by Indians or the British. Everyone considered women incapable of practicing law. Being an Indian woman, this task was even tougher for Cornelia. She was an outsider in India and Britain, but she was determined to carve out a space for women in law, and she started out doing just that.

After 10 years of struggle, she began advising lawyers. She started to fight for pardanashin women in India. These were the upper caste women who were segregated from men. Capable of owning and inheriting property, these women weren’t allowed to manage the inheritance, hence they faced abuse from men in the family. Cornelia faced and observed gender bias at every turn in her life. The pardanashin women usually ended up surrendering to the men, even if they won the case.

Cornelia was extraordinarily modern for a 19th-century woman. She publicly opposed Gandhi and practiced law, a profession practiced only by men.  She wasn’t just an advocate for the Indian women but was their portal to the world outside the veil. She went against the customs, getting jobs for her clients. She was terribly underpaid but continued to work for every woman she helped. Lawyers trivialized her in court. All her fellow lawyers were male, and the fact that they were fighting a case with a woman bruised their male ego.

A man after his career is called ‘determined’, but Cornelia was termed to be ‘over-ambitious’. Her survival in the world as a female lawyer was a path full of hurdles that grew harder as time passed. She was anti-nationalist, promoted the colonization of India. A take on Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, where she publicly advocated for the rule of Britishers in India, ended her career in law. In 1954, Cornelia passed away in her home in London.

Cornelia Sorabji was unique; she didn’t fit anywhere while she lived, and her unpopular opinions took away her place in the history books. All her life, she fought against a system and a society that had no place for her. She sets an example for every woman that aspires to become something. For every woman that aspires to succeed, going against every custom that may limit us. Cornelia refused to back down, even when the cruel world was against her every move. She didn’t give up, she wasn’t afraid of anyone who discouraged her. She was too determined to make her mark in the world to care about the ones who tried to pull her back.

Cornelia inspires us to refrain from saying that women don’t belong in a field, and pursue our dreams despite it being a patriarchal society.

Image Credits: Pexels (the lady in the image is not Cornelia Sorabji)

Paakhi is a seventeen-year-old published author, blogger, and the founder of "An Insipid

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