Friday, December 18, 2015

Champion of women in India

The disenfranchised women of Saudi Arabia have finally been given the right to vote and even stand for election, although only a modest few seem to have been brave enough to do so and it will be interesting to see whether this changes in the future.

One woman who devoted much of her life to helping women in a similar society where purdah was entrenched was Cornelia Sorabji. Although hallowed within academia in both India and Britain, she is little known to the general public and nor is she that easy to categorise. Due in part to her Christian heritage and her English connections, she admitted she never felt wholly Indian yet she was definitely not British either. She did a great deal to help secluded women assert their rights in regard to property, but she was not a feminist. She had little time for the politics of men like Gandhi and supported the British Raj in spite of its failings.

Cornelia's nephew, Professor Richard Sorabji, has written a book about herAnother biography is Cornelia Sorabji: India's Pioneering Woman Lawyer by Suparna Gooptu of the University of Calcutta, also see An Indian Portia by Kusoom Vadgama.

As long ago as the 1880s, Cornelia was making her mark. This article appeared in The Sydney Mail of 12 May 1888 and even allowing for the usual patronising and racially superior attitudes of the age it carries a tone of admiration:

Miss Cornelia Sorabji
Women all over the world are bestirring themselves to assert their sometimes questionable, but in many cases perfectly justifiable, claims to a status in culture, equal to that of men.Their fitness and right of doing so cannot be doubted any longer, considering the successes they have achieved at the universities of Great Britain, India, the United States and on the Continent. Miss Cornelia Sorabji is a case in point. She is the daughter of the Rev. Sorabji, a Parsee honorary missionary of the Church Missionary Society in Poona, and of Mrs. Sorabji, who visited England in 1886 to plead the case of female education in India, and was the first and only lady to enter the Deccan College at Poona in 1884. Her position, among upwards of 300 men, who, with the exception of two Englishmen and a few Parsees, were all Hindoos, was at first a most difficult one, but, with the goal of her ambition ever in view she went bravely on, winning golden opinions from principals and professors alike.Among her own sex her example has already borne fruit, two Parsee ladies and one Jewess having sought for admission into the colleges in Bombay and Poona. In Miss Sorabji’s case no concessions were made. She studied Latin in common with the men (though French has since been allowed to lady students). She was “top of her year” in the previous examination, has held a scholarship each year of her course, was “Hughlings Scholar” in 1885, having passed head of the University in English, “Havelock prizeman” the end of the same year, being top of the Deccan College in English, has taken honours each time, and in the final B.A. examination of the Bombay University, held in November, 1887, she was one of the four in the entire Presidency and the only student from her own college who succeeded in gaining first-class honours. Now that Miss Sorabji has thus succeeded, in spite of the unfriendly criticisms among her own countrymen and women upon her unprecedent career, her brave, high-souled behaviour cannot fail to raise the character and ability of women in the estimation of the Parsee and Hindoo community. 

From The Sydney Mail, 12 May 1888 (TROVE)
Here is another from a few years later that demonstrates the petty obstacles Cornelia would have faced (The Ballarat Star, 22 January 1902):

An Indian Portia
The Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn have made a notable departure in granting permission to an Indian lady, Miss Cornelia Sorabji, to frequent their library and use the books therein. The lady to whom this exceptional privilege has been extended is a very remarkable personage. She came to England from India a few years ago to study law, and resided at Somerville College, Oxford, where she passed the examination for B.C.L. [Bachelor Civil Law] and obtained a certificate equal in merit to that degree, which women cannot take in Oxford. She subsequently returned to India and in Bombay obtained the university degree of LL.B [Bachelor of Laws] and practised in the neighbouring courts and also in the High Court there as an advocate where she was admitted by order to defend prisoners in certain cases. She is now in England for the purposes of further study. 

In 1909, she was awarded the gold  Kaisar-i-Hind Medal for her work in helping widows and other women in estate matters through the Bengal Court of Wards. (She is not shown in the Wikipedia listing for medal beneficiaries, although several reports of her receiving the award can be found in the newspapers of the day.)

Aside from her involvement in the law, Cornelia wrote extensively on many subjects to do with India and its culture, including short stories and even plays. She also wrote her memoirs, but apparently they are discreet and do not go into her private life in any way.

Cornelia's style and dignity evident in this cover of The Queen publication
copyright UC Press

Photograph 1930
copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Cornelia's bust at Lincoln's Inn
From Wikipedia.
Photo by James Frankling Gresham Lectures