Opening Doors: the untold story of Cornelia Sorabji, reformer, lawyer and champion of women's rights in India
Cornelia Sorabji, my Indian aunt, was in 1889 the first woman admitted to sit for Oxford’s Law degree, and after a ten-year campaign, the first woman in India or England to have a full-time post as a lawyer, securing the job she designed for herself as adviser to the British Government on the legal predicaments of Indian women behind the purdah curtain.
These women, as widows, often young, might own 100 square miles of Indian territory, until their heir came of age, but could speak to no lawyer, because all lawyers were male, and, once husband-less, could speak to practically no other adult male except their priest. The British could not investigate attempts to seize the property or the heirs.
After a daring rescue of one woman through the jungle, she was in 1904 given a first four problematic estates and won the confidence and deep friendship of the women, securing their health, children’s education and legal rights, but always by sympathetic appeal to their own, not foreign, values. Reaching their palaces through desert and jungle, some she would train to become nurses, others to advise villagers on child-birth and care, but always shuttered from male gaze.
After a confrontation with Gandhi on responsibility for violent interference with her work by his followers, she still defended her households, but after 1924 in public as a barrister. The book rights have been requested for filming.
Listen to Professor Sir Richard Sorabji's lecture on the Gresham College website