Cornelia Sorabji was born in Nashik, Bombay Presidency, British India, on November 15, 1866. She was one of ten children and was named after her adopted grandmother, Lady Cornelia Maria Darling Ford. Sorabji Karsedji’s father, the Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, was a Christian missionary who had converted from Zoroastrianism, and she was credited with persuading Bombay University to include women to its degree programmes. Francina Ford (née Santya), her mother, was adopted at the age of twelve and raised by a British couple in Poona, where she worked to establish several girls’ schools. Cornelia Sorabji was inspired to campaign for women by her mother’s support for girls’ education and concern for the local poor.
Fight against injustice
In 1894, Sorabji became active in social and advising work on behalf of the purdahnashins, a group of women who were forbidden to converse with men. These women often had substantial property but lacked the legal ability to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to file petitions on their behalf before British representatives of the Kathiawar and Indore princes, but she was unable to defend them in court because she was a woman with no legal standing in India. Sorabji took the Bombay University LLB test in 1897 and the Allahabad High Court pleader’s exam in 1899 with the hopes of improving her condition.
Sorabji’s principal motivation for campaigning was to help people in need. She was cautious about social reform, favouring the British Raj, purdah for upper-caste Hindu women, and opposing quick reform, arguing that political reform would not bring “any genuine and enduring value” until all women were educated. She also rejected the imposition of Western women’s viewpoints on India’s feminist movement.
She was a member of the National Council for Women in India’s Bengal branch, as well as the Federation of University Women and the Bengal League of Social Service for Women. In 1909, she was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal for her services to the Indian people.