Law, First and Foremost

Among the first women to leave India in pursuit of higher education Cornelia Sorabji (1866–1954) who studied at Oxford was also one of the first Indian women to practice at the Calcutta High Court.

Suparna Gooptu teaches history at Calcutta University, where she is also Director of the Gandhi Studies. Her Cornelia Sorabjee, India's Pioneer Woman Lawyer: A biography has just been brought out as an Oxford India Paperback by OUP.

Appointed to a senior office under the British Indian government, Sorabji championed the cause of opening up the legal profession to women much before they were formally allowed to plead before the courts of law.

The biography, which appeared in hardcover in 2006 has used a large amount of data and is supported by insightful analysis. Reviewing it in The Hindu, then, Geeta Ramaseshan said "Gooptu's biography skilfully draws a canvas of an individual who was in many ways ahead of her times and places Cornelia in the intersection of gender, class and racial politics. While tracing Cornelia's education, Gooptu narrates the complex way in which Oxford provided an ideological justification for the notion of the Empire.

Gooptu argues that Cornelia's struggles were located within the matrix of imperial politics where the woman's question was also subsumed within the Tory imperial ideology. "Even when British women were provided a public space, they had to work within the parameters of the Empire." Exposed to this complex English political atmosphere of the late 19th century, Cornelia disagreed with Ramabai and felt that social change in India could not be brought through legislation because India was unprepared for it. Gooptu's analysis and case studies of Cornelia's interaction with `purdanashins' and Cornelia's fight against male bias in the legal profession makes fascinating reading drawing as it were from Cornelia's own struggles in establishing herself as a lawyer and the problems faced by `purdanashins'. `Purdahnashins' could not publicly participate in the management of their estates.

The male agent, who was her sole trustee, undertook the administration of the trust. Cases of abuses and betrayals of trust were in plenty. Even in such cases a `purdanashin' could complain only through her trustee due to her seclusion. If she was a guardian of a male heir to the estate she and her minor children became wards of the court in British India or the collector. Emphasising the denial of justice for such women Cornelia proposed the appointment of a lady legal adviser to the court of wards for each province who would be able to serve their needs. The book draws a lot of materials from Cornelia's private papers and correspondence that reveal crucial dimensions of her private self. The author places Cornelia in context while providing a rich analysis of the negotiations she chose in her professional life, the choices she made in her personal life and the ideological beliefs to which she held on. Gooptu provides an insightful biography of a remarkable woman who has remained neglected in studies on India's transition to modernity and also in the historiography of women and gender. "

In our Biography, Gender, History and Law sections, Rs 295 in paperback. ISBN: 9780198067924

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