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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A trailblazing woman

Cornelia Sorabji.jpg

Photo credit: © Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford

Born into a Christian Parsi family in Nasik, India, Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) came to Somerville Hall (as the College was called until 1894) to study Medicine. She had already gained a first in her finals at Deccan College, but as a woman she did not qualify for a Government of India scholarship to pursue further studies. However, she successfully applied to the National Indian Association for financial support and took up a place at Oxford in 1889. Somerville had been founded as a non-denominational college for women in 1879, eight years after the passing of the Universities Tests Act which allowed non-Anglicans to become full members of the University. Lady Margaret Hall opened for women as an Anglican foundation the same year as Somerville.

Some 49 Indian students matriculated in Oxford between 1871 and 1893, but Cornelia Sorabji was the first Indian woman to study at the University. She was the sole Indian student at Somerville until 1890, when she was joined by Bamba and Catherine Duleep Singh. Soon after her arrival, Sorabji changed her studies to Law so that she could help women in India who suffered from inequalities. She especially wanted to help the purdahnashin (women confined to their house behind the purdah and secluded by religious and social customs).

During her time in Oxford, Sorabji had to swallow racist prejudices and later recalled that ‘old ladies were always trying to convert me’; and when she told them that she was already a Christian, their reaction was that she looked ‘so very heathen’. Sorabji also faced prejudice as a woman. Women could neither matriculate nor graduate with a degree before October 1920. They were also not allowed to sit their exams with men until Sorabji protested. When she was told to take her Bachelor of Civil Law exams alone at her own College, supervised by the Warden, and not in the Examination Schools with the male students, she argued that it devalued her work. Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol and Vice Chancellor, then introduced a resolution in Congregation that allowed her to sit the BCL exams with the other students in the Schools.

Sorabji returned to India in 1894 and became the first woman to practise law there. She worked as a legal adviser helping women with their property cases, particularly the purdahnashin. Appointed to be a ‘Lady Assistant’ to the Court of Wards in Bengal in 1904, she extended her legal advice to assist children.  She was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind Gold medal in 1909 for her work with and for women. In 1930 she returned to live in Britain.