Cornelia Sorabji scholar Aradhana Vadekkethil (2017, Jurisprudence) writes about the legacy of the pioneering Indian lawyer.
Cornelia Sorabji, a barrister, a social reformer, a female pioneer and a prolific writer is an inspiration for every woman entering the legal profession. Her story sheds light on how she never knew whether it was a triumph or a failure which was awaiting her, but nevertheless, she persisted.She defied all odds and went on to become the first woman to study law at Oxford, and the first woman to practice law in both India and Britain. It is this indomitable spirit of hers, the confidence with which she dared to break the glass ceiling and enter the male dominated legal world that inspires me.
I often wonder how difficult and frustrating it must have been to enter male-dominated spaces, trying to get your voice heard and respected. That she could write so radically and bravely about the position of women in India right at the start of the twentieth century made me realise that social change starts with those difficult conversations we have with each other about things that might well make us uncomfortable.
From her inspiring story what struck me the most was one of her slogans which she had advocated for ever since her student days at Oxford – “Education before legislation.” She believed that children should be educated to understand and critique their customs so they could modify them. She knew that the law could help drive social change but strongly believed that education had to be done first.
To be reading for an MPhil in Law and undertaking a research on the linguistic analysis of rape law judgments in India, at her alma mater and on a Law Scholarship Programme in her name is very special to me. Whenever I get exasperated (which is quite often) by the sexist and stereotypical language and tone of the judgments on rape and sexual violence that I have been researching on, her slogan echoes in my ears. A century ago she had predicted that legislation has a limited role and that it is possible that laws are ignored or not applied properly and therefore the key goal has to be education. Her ideologies and her immense belief in the direct correlation between education and empowerment has reinforced my faith, time and again, in standing firm in pursuing legal academia as a career.
To sum it up in a line, her story is a reminder that with sheer determination one can make even the impossible possible.