Purdah and Cornelia Sorabji: First Female Barrister in India

Another very impressive female legal pioneer is Cornelia Sorabji, who took her law exams in India as early as 1899. She became involved in legal advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins (see below), these were women who, under Hindu law, were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world and were exempt from appearing in court.  The cases often involved women who owned considerable property, but did not have access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it.

Despite being given special permission to enter pleas on behalf of the purdahnashins before British agents in several principalities, but being a woman, she was unable to defend them in court. Even after gaining her legal qualifications in 1899, Sorabji was not recognized as a barrister until the law, which barred women from practising, was changed in 1924.

After the legal profession was opened to women in India, she began practising in Calcutta. However, she was confined to preparing opinions on cases, rather than pleading them before the court due to discrimination and male bias.  For over 20 years Sorabji helped an estimated 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, sometimes at no cost. She wrote about many of these cases in her books Between the Twilights and her two autobiographies.

The Purdahnashins – The woman with a veil

“Purdah is a curtain which covers the head and neck of a woman, between the community as a whole and the family which is its heart, between the street and the home, the public and the private, just as it sharply separates society and the individual”

The purdah system traditionally seeks to segregate men and women and is more prevalent today in rural areas. The system requires Muslim women to have no contact with men and be covered from head to toe by cloth and often a burkha. While Hindu women traditionally wear a ghoonghat, which covers the head and face and is more prevalent today in smaller towns & villages. Some women only cover their heads as a mark of respect to elders.

A purdahnashin woman

Some critics see purdah as depriving women of economic independence and forces these women to be governed by their male relatives. Originally purdah was intended to be a positive and respectful practice that was supposed to liberate women by providing an aura of respect. By covering themselves, women are looked at as individuals who are judged by their intellect and personality rather than by their physical appearance. However, since the rise of the women’s movement and greater economic and social independence of women, the role of purdah in many cultures has become more controversial. The practice of purdah has almost disappeared in the Hindu culture and is practised to greater and lesser degrees in Muslim areas.

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