In the early 20th century the Zenana Missionary society of Leamington was honoured with a number of visits from Cornelia Sorabji, an incredible and pioneering woman who made history in both Britain and India.
Linking Leamington and India
The Zenana Missionary society directed its activities towards ‘purdahnashins’; women in India who were physically segregated from men and therefore had limited social and economic freedom. Zenana literally means ‘pertaining to women’, and refers to the part of the home that the women occupied. The Mission trained and recruited female doctors to provide healthcare to these women, who otherwise may not have been able to access it. They then used this as an opportunity to preach Christianity in their homes.
The Leamington branch of the Zenana Mission were particularly active fundraisers; in 1917 they raised the largest sum out of any town branch.1 They also invited various women from across the Indian Empire to be guest speakers at their meetings, including Miss K. M. Bose of Asrapur and Miss M. B. Collings Wells of Quetta.2 These women provided a link between well-meaning Leamington individuals and the work that they were supporting in India.
One such individual, who was invited to speak on a number of occasions, was Cornelia Sorabji.3
An embodiment of empowerment
Sorabji herself was an embodiment of the empowerment that she sought for her fellow country-women. She was born in Nashik, India, and educated at mission schools. Her mother was a keen advocate of female education. Sorabji’s career was a string of ‘firsts’: she was the first Indian person to study at a British University, and the first woman to study law at Oxford. She was the first female graduate from Bombay University, and India’s first female law graduate – although she was not allowed to practice until 1923, when the law in India was changed to allow women to be barristers.4 She dedicated much of her time to promoting the cause of purdahnashins – hence her connection to the Zenana Missions.5
‘The woman of India is awakening’
In her numerous speeches to Warwickshire societies, Sorabji’s passion for women’s rights is clear. She describes how ‘the Indian woman… is imprisoned in her apartments and never allowed to mix with other people or to see the beauties of her native land or to have the joy of being free for a single hour’.6 When she addressed the society in Salisbury Hall, Sorabji made her point by asking the women whether they had required permission from their husbands to attend. ‘Of course they had not; but an Indian woman would have had to ask the man who ruled her and her home.’7
With profound and defiant imagery, Sorabji brought her message to the people of Leamington: ‘womanhood does not mean abject submission to man… the woman of India is awakening and looked towards the golden dawn and demanding, aye pleading, for education.’8
Sorabji continued to visit and speak in Leamington until a year before her retirement at age 63.9
1 Miss Sorabji’s Visit to Leamington, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 19 October 1917.
2 The Zenana Mission Society: Religion and Women, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 28 October 1921; The Zenana Missions: Annual Meeting, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 27 October 1922.
3 Local Chronology for 1979, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 28 December 1917; Church of England Zenana Mission Society, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 26 October 1928; Zenana Mission Society, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 02 November 1928; Zenana Mission Society, Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, Saturday 03 November 1928; Coventry Diocesan Missionary Festival, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 03 June 1921.
4 S. B. Bhattacherje , Encyclopaedia of Indian Events & Dates, (New Delhi, 2008), page A188.
5 The Open University, Cornelia Sorabji, in ‘Making Britain Discover how South Asians shaped
the nation, 1870-1950′, accessed 04/03/2017.
6 Miss Sorabji’s Visit to Leamington, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 19 October 1917.
7 Zenana Missionary Society, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 02 November 1928.
8 Miss Sorabji’s Visit to Leamington, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 19 October 1917.
9 Church of England Zenana Mission Society, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 26 October 1928; Zenana Mission Society, Leamington Spa Courier, Friday 02 November 1928; Zenana Mission Society, Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, Saturday 03 November 1928.