In 1874, a seemingly well-to-do Hindu lady from Gujarat paid a visit to a Zoroastrian-Christian household, seeking help on a financial matter (only in India). Francina Ford, whose advice was sought, had a daughter aged eight, Cornelia, who read a book on the floor as they spoke.
The lady bore “big sad eyes with big lashes”, and had a complicated problem. She was a widow, bound to her house and away from the company of men. To handle her many properties, she was permitted to communicate with a “man of business”. Being illiterate, she gave him signed pages of blank paper, which he was to make into the necessary paperwork. As it turned out, he wrote out all of her property in his name, and thirty years since being signed on for the job, left her in destitution.
Legally, everything was his and nothing was hers. Her seclusion compounded the problem. She narrated her tale in between bouts of sobbing, as Cornelia crept to her mother’s side and listened. After the lady left, Francina had a momentous conversation with her daughter:
Did you understand what she said?
‘Only that she is in great trouble…and even you cannot help her.’
That is so… There are many Indian women in trouble in that way. Would you like to learn how to help them?
‘Oh! I should!’
Then, when you grow up and are able to choose the special thing you want to learn, ask to study the Law. That will show you the way to help in this kind of trouble.
It was a simple, defiant act of inspiration in late nineteenth-century colonial India. But it put Cornelia Sorabji firmly on course to becoming India’s first female lawyer, Oxford’s first female law graduate and the only person to lift the veil off the Purdah system that enslaved hundreds of women into a life of isolation.
The system of Purdah (meaning veil) then dominated many households in Muslim and Hindu communities. It was a virtual excommunication of women from men besides their immediate family members, sealing them off behind veils and curtains – and completely denying them access to legal representation. The Purdahnashins, as such women were called, had many rights under Hindu law on paper, but could not fight for them in court. Cornelia felt uniquely placed to be able to help them, and pursued her dream of becoming a lawyer in their name.
Cornelia had many years of study to become a lawyer, and enrolled to study English literature in a branch Bombay University at Pune – where boys slammed shut lecture doors as she tried to attend them. They failed, and she won – topping the college and becoming the university’s first female graduate in 1886. She knew her grades were good enough for a higher education abroad, and applied to study Law at Oxford.
She set sail for Britain in 1888, where she was meet with the rude shock of a denied scholarship. Luckily, there were other powerful women in the city of dreaming spires. Florence Nightingale and the principal of Somerville College, Madeleine Shaw Lefevre, pooled together some funds for the promising young girl from India – who would be Oxford’s first woman studying law.
She made a close friend in Oxford of the famous Sanskrit scholar Max Müller – with whom she infamously climbed the stairs of the Codrington library with, to shout “COOEE” down from during a party.
Britain was not far behind India in denying women their rights. The University at first refused to allow her to sit exams in its hallowed Examination Schools – relenting only after one of its most senior professors, Benjamin Jowett, called a University Council Meeting where the resolution was passed – “Oxford University shall examine Cornelia Sorabji.”
Her exams did not go smoothly – thanks largely by a viva-conductor who, in her words, “bullied my life out.” As she left the hall, she turned to him and gave him a piece of her mind on one of his books, which she found questionable. Nonetheless, she had cleared her degree, though it would only be awarded to her by 1920. A century since she pioneered Indian women’s study at Oxford, Somerville College now offers a scholarship in law under her name.
***Done with Oxford, Cornelia returned to India – and the harsh realities of patriarchy and condescension.
Courts would neither accept her nor take her seriously. When she asked to practice at the Allahabad High Court, the Chief Justice told her “If you appeared before me, how could I scold you?” In another case, she was called to sue the Maharajah of Panchmahals on behalf of his elephant – whose food he had denied. It was a mock set-up, with the Maharaja as both judge and defendant – merely interested in seeing a woman barrister make a case.
Outside of the formal setup, she found a way to make a difference.
In the 20 long years between arriving in India and being allowed to practice law in a court room, she served as an in-between for Purdahnashin and British officers – the only person capable of doing so at the time. She fought cases for over 600 women and orphans, sometimes for free. She was appointed the Legal Advisor for Purdahshin in the Court of Wards for Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam; becoming the first woman civil servant in the process.
Her work, over years of travel to rural and jungle areas, won her the “Kaiser-e-Hind” award from the Raj in 1908. In 1922, she was registered at London’s Lincoln’s Inn – then the world’s most reputed institute for practicing lawyers.
Cornelia published her experiences with the women of Purdah in both fiction and non-fiction accounts. One of her books, “The Purdahnashins” told the stories of the women she defended – with had the proceeds go to their welfare. But “Life and Love Behind a Purdah” revealed an attempt at storytelling – taking out individual moments in a woman’s life – such as an argument with the husband over what he had done for her.
She held a deep respect for Hindu culture, and was critical of those who sought to change it without a familiarity with its customs and nuances. This put her at odds with the women’s rights movements at the time, which she critiqued as “the hysteria of politics.” She could be contrasting – opposed to the movement to grant women voting rights in Britain, despite being a champion of the Purdahnashins in India. It partly has to do with her disenchantment with words over deeds – as she put it, “All the Reformers talk big and act small.”
Towards the second half of her life, she was notably pro-Empire – controversially defending critical works on India such as Katherine Mayo’s “Mother India”. Her passage on the role of the Indian woman is included in the book, and reads:
“She waits upon her husband when he feeds, silent in his presence, with downcast eyes. To look him in the face were bold indeed.”
Cornelia’s writings are arguably largely for an Anglicized-audience, and knew she had to play to their tune at times. As she wrote, “[The] only formula for a bestseller… is to catch an crystallize the reader’s preconceived notions… to reveal no more than the reader has faculty for revealing.”
She left India in 1929 to retire in England. Her life was a fierce struggle, but she prevailed against everything that was thrown against her. It all started with a nudge of inspiration from her mother, so many years ago, who taught her the most valuable lesson she could learn at the age of eight – “There was nothing to fear – but Fear.”
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