Ancient Mesopotamians led a brutal existence, rocked by a long history of war over the control of fertile river valleys, which in light of the arid land that surrounded the region, meant life and death. The socioeconomic structure that emerged, in part out of necessity, ensured that women assumed domestic roles, but over time, these translated into massive gender inequalities. This paper asserts that women in ancient times as well as today belong to a lower class and have not been acknowledged for their contributions to the building of those societies and have not been treated equally then or today in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It draws on the sociocultural, political and economic structure of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in relation to women’s roles, and compares them to the practices in modern-day Egypt and countries that geographical comprised ancient Mesopotamia (Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq).
The hunter-gatherer economic system in Mesopotamia charged both men and women with the responsibility of finding food, even though women stayed closer to the camps because the bore and raised children. They played a critical role gathering fruits and vegetables, and their important role earned them relative equality to men, with some scientists speculate they participated in joint decision-making . However, the balance of power began tipping in favour of men with the development of systematic agriculture (8000-7000 B.C.E.), which allowed permanent settlements and property ownership. Men assumed the primary role of tending animals and crops, with women only playing a limited role in the fields/business (known for participating in business, especially in running taverns). Naturally, therefore, the emergence of governments/politics, militaries and social structures based on economic power did not favour women (who stayed at home). The emergence of civilization elsewhere (including Egypt) between led to the development of similar divisions of labour and balance of power that favoured men. In Mesopotamia, the role and rights of women in society are perhaps best emphasized in Hammurabi’s Code, circa 1750 B.C.E. Most of the laws focused on marriage and family.
Parents arranged marriages for their children and marriage partners had to sign a marriage contract that conferred validity. Women had relatively fewer rights and privileges in marriage, with her place not only being in the home, but the failure to fulfil their expected duties (including bearing children) was a ground for divorce. A husband could divorce his wife (without returning the dowry) for leaving home to engage in business or neglecting her house, and could have his wife drowned if she humiliated him from neglecting her house. Sexual relations were equally closely regulated, with men being allowed to engage in sexual relations outside their marriage i.e. they could be polygamous, maintain concubines and keep slaves to meet their sexual desires and sire descendants if the wife was barren. Women, on the other hand, risked stern sanctions for adultery. Code 129 states that “if the wife of a free man has been caught while lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water” unless her husband wished to spare her, in which case, the king also pardoned the man (p. 10). Further, while fathers were only banished for incest, mothers that had incestuous relationships with their sons were burned along with the offending sons. As heads of their households, men had absolute power over women, and upon marriage, men had the legal right to pawn and/or sell their wives and children into slavery for up to three years to honour debts. The perception that women belonged to, and were inferior to men is also evidenced in the multiple rape laws, by which the father/husband was considered the wronged party if a woman/girl was raped, and victims had to provide prove that they resisted the attached, without which they were punishable for fornication/adultery.
Women did, however, own and buy property, and had title to their husband’s property if they were widowed and there were no eligible male heirs, including the choice of which sons could receive her inheritance. They worked in cloth and food production, temple complexes and as slaves depending on their social statuses. Some women ran large businesses, deputized their husbands, and could bring court cases. There is evidence going back to 2300 B.C.E of priestesses to the moon god, heaven god and the goddess of love. By the time of the Assyrians, man’s control over women included dress, with married women being mandated to wear veils as a mark of chastity, and a woman’s virginity was an important condition for marriage. A barren wife was mandated to provide her husband with a concubine so he could have children, and the concubine’s status was raised if they bore a male child. For most women, however, their dowry property was management by their husbands and remained confined to the houses.
Mesopotamia traded extensively with Egypt, with the latter benefitting from Mesopotamia’s technological superiority. Socially, it is possible, according to the History of World International (1992), that women had a far superior status in Egypt compared to Mesopotamia, despite the difficulty of obtaining information on the same. Egyptians held women in tremendous respect, especially women who belonged to upper classes, not least because marriage alliances were extremely important in the preservation and stability of the monarchy. In addition, the Egyptian religion had more pronounced deference to female gods as sources of creativity (para. 15). Women retained title to their inheritance and property, even after marriage. While most public offices and careers were only open to men, some women operated businesses. Peasant women put in long hours in the fields, besides their numerous domestic chores (such as weaving cloth). As in Mesopotamia, upper-class women could serve as priestesses, several queens did become pharaohs in their own right.
One of the most prominent of the female pharaohs was Hatshepsut, who led the New Kingdom. She became pharaoh after having served as a regent and remained in power until her death, during which time the New Kingdom saw tremendous prosperity. She built a temple at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, which was dedicated to herself. She also encouraged agriculture, mining and built a strong army, which facilitated the kingdom’s growth in power in trade. While Hatshepsut and female pharaohs held special positions, this is largely due to an a more permissive society, coupled with the fact that Egyptians considered pharaohs as gods, and thus they were less likely to hold a female pharaoh in no less esteem than a male one. Religion played a helpful role in elevating the status of women in the Mesopotamian society too, but only just. This is evidence in the ancient Sumerian, but was once against wiped out in the Old Babylonian (Akkadians) culture (during which time, women could not even own property).
As in Mesopotamia, Egyptian parents arranged marriages for their children, with the need to preserve wealth and family, being important motivations. While male children were valued, daughters were not as slighted as was the case in Mesopotamia. According to Spielvogel (2013), tomb paintings show that parents had close, and affectionate relationships with both their daughters and sons and there is evidence that divorce was allowed with women receiving compensation. In further contrast to Mesopotamia, adultery was strictly prohibited in Egypt, even though women more severe punishments were imposed on women than men, including having offenders burned at the stake (p. 23).
Comparison to Modern-day Egypt and Mesopotamia
Increasing wealth has resulted in the increasing equality, reduced maternal mortality, and enrolment of girls in school. Generally, women in the Arab-speaking Middle East and North Africa are comparably more disadvantaged than women in other regions and more so than regions with equal income levels across Latin America and Asia. Firstly, the legal systems in these countries, and in every country in the Middle East and North Africa have provisions that may be considered in violation of women’s human rights. Despite the impressive progress over the past four decades, gender disparities in the completion of higher education exists across Egypt, the Syrian Arab Republic, Lebanon and Iraq, with girls being likely to drop out of school than boys. Low-income families prefer education boys because girls get married away from the family, and a consequence, illiteracy rates among young women in Upper Egypt, for example, stood at 24% (national average is 11%) in 2013 (with 45% of women being without education). Across MENA, the social norms on their status and roles in society rise sharply once they reach puberty. In Iraq, for instance, the reasons for girls between 11 and 24 years dropping out of school included marriage, insecurity, cost, end of education and social reasons. Israel is the only major exception with regard to literacy and access to education.
Labour force participation for women has increased but remains lower than men. Investments in female human capital across MENA is lower than men, and participation in the labour force by females aged more than 15 years is only 25.2%m compared to 51% in other regions of the world at comparable levels of development. In Egypt female participation in the labour force has fallen further for less educated and poorer women, while only increasing marginally for high-income women, which means that they class distinctions that existed in ancient Egypt still obtain today. Luckily, however, in the four Arabic nations, the public sector comprises a large share of employment, where well-educated women are relatively well represented, but this is not the same in the informal sector. In Israel, women participation in the labour market is comparable but lower than men’s, but considerable wage disparities exist. Israel is ranked 130th in the world in regard to wage equality between women and men, despite the improvements in women’s educational attainment and political decision-making.
Arranged, early and forced marriages remain a major problem in the Arabic-speaking Middle East in part because of poverty, discriminatory religious and cultural practices, family feuds, civil wars and social upheavals. Female children have a low social premium in Middle Eastern cultures and, therefore, command fewer privileges, opportunities, and rights. Financial incentives (dowry system) for child marriages are main drivers in impoverished families, where girls are a financial asset that can be used to relieve debts and generate income. Effectively, young girls are a currency. Discriminatory cultural/religious practices that lay emphasis on purity/chastity, similar to or may have a foundation in the Mesopotamian practices have only served to fuel the practice. For instance, Islamic taboos about female sexuality mandate early marriages as a way to ensure girls are pure, besides preventing women from divorcing or fleeing from their husbands. Religion and culture have also served to render any attempts to combat the practices by providing the ideological basis for those that resist change. Other than religion, civil wars and political instability in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, coupled with lawlessness in some parts of Egypt have created environments in which girls are abducted, sexually abused, forced into domestic slavery among other brutal curtailments of their rights.
It is clear that ancient cultural beliefs and practices about the roles of women in families and society (e.g. childbearing), chastity/purity, division of labour and employment participation have carried on into the modern world (Davis, Postles and Rosa 12; McIntosh 153; Spielvogel 10). While in the ancient world religion helped advance the cultural status of women, the emergence of Islam in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt has not been equally empowering. Religion has served to offer a moral and ideological basis that has not only prevented progress towards gender equality, but actively resisting it. Extreme gender disparities still exist across the Middle East, with even Israel (being economically, legally and institutionally advanced) still posting considerable disparities in wages. Effectively, like in the ancient world, women still belong to a lower class and still struggle against immense odds to get ahead, despite their important contributions to the socio-economic development.
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