Remembering the first ever Indian female barrister in the UK

Monday 28th November 2016 15:05 EST

While Cornelia Sorabji has been hailed for her contributions in the legal field as a female Indian barrister in the UK, in early 1920s, Dr Kusoom Vadgama, the Editor of the Book 'An Indian Portia' in an interaction with Asian Voice clarified that Sorabji wasn't the first female Indian barrister to attain the accolade, was in fact the second, though she remained the very first woman of any nationality to study law at Oxford.

In fact it was Mithan Tata who in January 1923 became the first woman called to the bar and the first practising Indian woman barrister. Sorabji followed in June 1923.

Mithan was born into a Parsi family in Maharashtra in 1898 and spent her childhood in different parts of India, including Ahmedabad, as her father Ardeshir moved his family wherever his work in the textile industry took him. By 1913 the family was living in Bombay where her father ran a large textile mill.

Mithan was sent to good schools and graduated from Elphinstone College with a first in Economics and was winner of the much coveted Cobden Club Medal. She and her mother, Herabai, were both passionate advocates of women’s rights. Herabai had met and been inspired by Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

In 1919 a Royal Commission in London was considering the future of India. Influenced by her mother, Mithan had an urge to fight for women's rights, particularly the political vote for Indian women. Later inspired by Sarojini Naidu's ardent speech she embarked to England then aged 21, with mother Herebai to give evidence before the South-borough Commission on Indian Reforms. Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant and other leaders were already in England to give evidence before the Commission.

Mithan stayed on in London to do a Master’s degree at London School of Economics, while simultaneously preparing for the bar. She and her mother took rooms in 16 Tavistock Square for the next four years. On behalf of the Bombay Women's Committee of Social Workers, Mithan toured England and Scotland, lecturing on the need for equal suffrage rights for Indian women. She was one of the speakers in the House of Commons, along with Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu, and Major Graham Pole, to speak for Indians women's right to vote. This became the first Indian Reform Bill to be passed as an Act of Parliament, though the only one to let women vote immediately was Madras in 1921.

Once called to the bar, she returned to India and enrolled in the Mumbai High Court. She was the first, and for some years the only, practising woman barrister. For reasons that are not clear, Mithan stopped practising after three years. She was appointed as a Justice of Peace and executive magistrate as well as a member of the committee on Parsi Marriage Act of 1865, which helped her to contribute to the amendment of the act that came to be known as the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act of 1936. Mithan was also a part-time Professor at the Mumbai Law College.

Mithan married Jamshed Sorab Lam, a lawyer and public notary in 1933. Their son, Sorab Lam, became a successful orthopaedic and trauma surgeon who practised and settled in this country. Mithan was very active for the rest of her life in women’s organisations and social work, such as the Matunga Labour Camp in one of the worst slums of Mumbai.

In 1947 Mithan was appointed the first woman Sheriff of Mumbai. She chaired the Women’s Committee set up for the Relief and Rehabilitation of Refugees from Pakistan. In 1962 her contribution to Indian society was recognised by the government awarding her the honour of the Padma Bhushan.

During her last years, Mithan had to live a very solitary life due to her deafness. Yet she managed to do her work with dedication. The death of her husband was a great blow to her, after 45 years of happy married life and she survived only for two and a half years after that. 

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