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Raj Kumar Makkad (Adv P & H High Court Chandigarh)     14 March 2010


Most woman lawyers do not face the difficulties that were faced by India’s first woman lawyer to practice in a court, Regina Guha or  India’s first barrister, Cornelia Sorabji, when they tried to step into the testosterone driven legal practice. Obviously, the ‘times they are-a-changing’. For example, of Poovayya & Co’s four partners, 3 belong to the fairer s*x.

Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, Khaitan & Co Partner believes that the trend has changed over the last decade. “Statistics from the new age law schools will show that there are many more women professionals graduating. The statistics were different in the past, if you see old statistics it will be one sided, but not anymore,” he says.

While some may believe that it will never be an oestrogen driven profession, Bar & Bench takes a look at the women who started it all, in more ways than one.

Cornelia Sorabji:

Most young lawyers do not know of Cornelia Sorabji. Born November 1866, she was India’s first barrister from the fairer s*x. Also a social reformer and writer, she played a crucial role in trying to open up the legal profession to women. Her efforts were instrumental in having the profession formally allow them to plead before courts of law.

Cornelia and her eight siblings were initially tutored at home by their Parsi-Christian father, Sorabji Karsedji and later, in missionary schools. One of the first few women to study law in Oxford, she was appointed to a senior office under the British-Indian Government to protect the interests of the Purdahnashins. In 1892, she was given special permission by Congregational Decree, thanks to the efforts of her English friends, to sit for the examination in bachelor of civil law, becoming the first woman to do so.

Justice Anna Chandy:

Justice Chandy enjoys the distinction of being the first woman judge in a District Court and the first woman to reach a High Court judgeship. Born in 1905, and admitted to the Bar in 1928, she rose in rank at a fast pace. The then Dewan of Travancore, appointed her as a Munsif within 9 years. She was later elevated as a Judge of the Kerala High Court in 1959 and she retired 8 years later in 1967.

Justice Meera Sahib Fathima Beevi:

She was the first woman judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and the first Muslim woman to be appointed to higher judiciary. Justice Beevi, our second entry from Kerala, started her practice in 1950. Appointed as a Musif in 1958, she rose through the ranks and was elevated as a District & Sessions Judge in 1974 and to the High Court in 1983. She was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1989 and retired in 1992. After her retirement, she served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission and later as a Governor of Tamil Nadu.

Her appointment to the Supreme Court was shrouded in controversy, when several objected to her elevation over several senior judges as a political decision by Rajiv Gandhi after the Shah Bano case. While she was the Governor of Tamil Nadu, her decision to invite Jayalalitha to form the Government was considered unconstitutional.

Justice Leila Seth:

The first Chief Justice of a State High Court, originally wanted to be a nun. Her desires changed after she stood first from Bengal in the Senior Cambridge exams in 1946. Justice Seth’s husband was posted in the United Kingdom during which she decided to study law on account of the spare time on her hands. After becoming the first woman to top London’s Bar exams. In 1959, she enrolled in the Calcutta High Court and in the Supreme Court. In 1977, she was designated as a senior counsel in the Supreme Court and was elevated as a Judge of the Delhi High Court in 1978. In 1991 she was appointed as the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh. 

The mother of activist Shantum Seth, film maker Aradhana Seth and writer Vikram Seth, she was the member of the 15th Law Commission and instrumental in enacting the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act which gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property.

Zia Mody:

Most Indian lawyers look up to her and most consider her as an ‘institution’. The founder partner of AZB & Partners is the authority in Indian corporate law. Daughter of Soli Sorabjee, the New York qualified attorney worked with Baker & McKenzie for 5 years before returning to Mumbai in 1984. With an undergraduate degree from Cambridge University and post-graduate degree from Harvard, she practiced in the courts for over 15 years. She is considered as one of the post powerful women in India, a fact repeatedly established by magazines. There are indeed few lawyers, irrespective of gender, who can stand up to her.

Indira Jaising:

Born in 1940, she was designated as a Senior Counsel by the Bombay High Court in 1986, second only after Sohini Nanavati. Howevrer, she is the first woman to be appointed as an Additional Solicitor General of India. Primarily a Human Rights lawyer, her arguments in Mary Roy's case led to the grant of equal inheritance rights for Syrian Christian women in Kerala. She also successfully prosecuted K.P.S. Gill in the Rupan Deol Bajaj s*xual harassment case. These are only two in her long list of successful cases. Jaising has been at the forefront of every major human rights related litigation in India. Be it the Bhopal gas tragedy, or the case of the homeless pavement dwellers in Mumbai, the extra judicial killings in Punjab, or Gita Hariharan’s case that established the natural guardian status to mothers of minor children, she has led them all. The Founder Secretary of leading civil rights organization, Lawyers Collective, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government in recognition of her contributions to civil society, in 2005.

Shah Bano:

Shah Bano is no lawyer. Every law student however is familiar with her name. In 1978, Shah Bano’s husband, divorced the mother of 5. After a 7 year battle in the lower courts for alimony, the Supreme Court passed a judgement in her favour. However, after an uprising by orthodox Muslims, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi caved into the demands of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, denying Muslim women the right to alimony.


 5 Replies

DR.SANAT KUMAR DASH (Eye Specialist)     14 March 2010


Roopsi (student)     14 March 2010

thank you very much makkad sir, for giving such a knowledgeful information.

Arati Gawde ( Legal )     16 March 2010

Thanks Sir, for this information about woman lawyers of India.

Eva Dhurairaj (Legal Officer)     23 February 2011

Excellent compilation, Sir.

Sudhir Kumar, Advocate (Advocate)     11 December 2011

even inearlier days in britain, if you read Merchan of venice, it is clear that in those days woman could not argue and portia had to disguise as man. But in saudi arabia penalty for woman driving is flogging.

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