Ezlynn Deraniyagala

1908 - 1973

First woman to be admitted to the Colombo Bar.

Call 1934, Inner Temple

Ezlynn was born in Sussex but spent her whole life in Sri Lanka only leaving for three years to pursue her education at Oxford University. Both sides of her family had provided many public servants and lawyers and she was the cousin of Solomon Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka, who was husband of the world first female Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, when she was elected in 1960.

Obeysekere attended the women only Society of Oxford Home-Students (later St Anne’s College), which enabled young women to live in cheaper local lodgings rather than university rooms. Financial constraints are further evidenced by a note in support of a funding application from her tutor, Dr Ivy Williams, whose name will be familiar as the first woman in England to be admitted as a barrister. Obeysekere’s stated wish was to use her legal studies to help her fellow country women, which is shown in her many activities in later life.

She was the second woman from Sri Lanka to pass her English Bar exams (after Avabai Bomanji Wadia, 1913-2005) and was called in 1934. She was the first to be admitted to the Colombo Bar, in 1935.

Obeysekere married Ralph Deraniyagala, also a lawyer, in 1937 and had one son who became a Doctor of Medicine.

In a letter to The Ship, her college newsletter, in 1937, Deraniyagala spoke of the challenges of her professional life, indicating that work had been scant but that she hoped to write on Roman Dutch law currently operative in Sri Lanka, through its Dutch colonial heritage, which preceded British rule.

Although her life began with considerable financial constraints her financial situation  improved  to the extent she and her husband were able to conduct an 8 month tour to see the Coronation in London, then on to Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the Paris Exhibition whilst their baby son remained in Sri Lanka.

In 1948 she approached her Oxford College seeking to produce a doctorate on ‘the advancement of women’s rights and activities in Ceylon’ to which she received a very discouraging response.

Whilst practising as a lawyer, Deraniyagala spent much of her time and overseas travel in national and international women’s groups. She founded the Sri Lanka Women Lawyers’ Association in 1960, and was its first President. She was also President of the International Alliance of Women from 1958-1964, and was the first female delegate from Sri Lanka to the UN.

She died at the age of only about 65, whilst at the height of her public work.

© Carrie de Silva