On a day drenched in sunshine, a bust of Cornelia Sorabji — the first woman to practise law in India and Britain — was unveiled in Lincoln’s Inn, the world’s oldest law society. It was a grand occasion, attended by women jurists, diplomats and lawyers, and one with a strong contemporary resonance.
It was the culmination of years of work by the London-based Indian-origin author, Kusoom Vadgama. In 1892, Nashik-born Sorabji, a brilliant student and the first female graduate of Bombay University, created history by becoming the first woman to be allowed to sit the examination for the degree of bachelor of civil law.
“She was not, of course, able to take her degree or be called to the English Bar for another 30 years,” Lady Brenda Hale, the only woman judge of the British Supreme Court, told the gathering inside the ornate Great Hall. I wondered briefly what Sorabji, an imperialist, would have made of the garland that was placed around her bust. Quite possibly, she would not have minded the Indian gesture.
What would be far more pleasing to Vadgama and others would be for both India and Britain — countries wedded to the rule of law — to have many more women judges than they currently do. Lady Hale became the first woman to be made a Law Lord (yes, Lord) in Britain when the House of Lords was the apex court. That was in 2004.
Five years later, Britain unveiled its own Supreme Court and Lady Hale became a judge there — she remains the most senior female judge in British history. “I’m the only woman in the Supreme Court of the UK, which is slow progress indeed,” said Lady Hale.
The pace of progress in the Indian Supreme Court has been equally plodding. Since 1989, when Fathima Beevi became the first woman judge, there have been four others, including the two in the current list — Gyan Sudha Misra and Ranjana Desai.
But no female judge has yet been appointed as Chief Justice of India or President of the British Supreme Court. Vadgama, a passionate advocate of India-UK ties whose earlier books have had forewords by Indira Gandhi and Prince Charles, is keen to see a replica of the bust placed in the Indian Supreme Court.
The hope of women in both countries is that the symbol of Sorabji will drive real change.