How were women treated in ancient Egypt?
In ancient Egypt, women weren’t as marginalized as in other ancient civilizations. In a number of areas, ancient Egyptian women had almost the same level of rights as men. The society’s attitude toward women is reflective in the kind of reverence that was given to Egyptian goddesses. Take the example of the Egyptian war goddess Neith – it was believed that she had a tremendous amount of influence on the lives of Egyptians. Neith was also the goddess of creation in some accounts. Ancient Egyptians strived for balance (ma’at) – balance between order and chaos, and balance between gender roles. This quest is perhaps one of the reasons why women in ancient Egypt had relatively more freedom than women in other ancient civilizations. In this article, you will learn about the kind of treatment women received in ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptians saw women as equal to men in many areas
Perhaps with the exclusion of occupations, men and women had almost the same rights in ancient Egypt. Women weren’t allowed into the military or serve as senior government officials. Their primary sphere of control was in the house, carrying out the household chores, including hauling water from the well or river, sewing, cooking, cleaning, etc. However, there were some that kept poking at the glass ceiling, hoping to shatter it.
It was very rare for women to attain a position of authority in the land of Egypt. Those kinds of jobs – i.e. governors, military generals, and pharaohs – were usually seen as the preserve of men. However, it must be noted that there were some female royal members that shattered the glass ceiling and got crowned pharaoh of Egypt (more on this later).
The simple and short is that women had almost the same rights men had under the law of the land.
More a case of socio-economic class than gender
The kind of rights women in Egypt had is said to have been dependent on the socio-economic class that they found themselves in. It was often the case that gender did not play much of a significant role. That’s to say, an upper-class woman had more rights than say woman born into a family of tenant farmers.
Women in ancient Egypt could own property
Way advanced than its contemporaries, ancient Egyptian laws allowed for women to own property. They could also do as they pleased with the property they owned. This property right allowed women not only to have some level of economic independence but also respect within the society. This was also aided by the fact that women could enter into contracts all by themselves. It means they could sue and be sued at court as the law saw them as competent and capable.
Equal rights when it came to divorce
Considering the fact that ancient Egypt dates as far back as the 4th millennium BC, it is very remarkable that such an ancient society granted women equal rights in the matter of divorce. In its more than 3,000 years of existence, ancient Egypt was far from being a place where free women were treated as the properties of their husbands. Women had the freedom to marry whomever the desired. They could also file for divorce whenever they wanted.
Another testimony to the kind of freedom ancient Egyptian women had has to do with the fact that the Egyptian society did not stigmatize women that got divorced. In times of divorce, the laws favored the women slightly – women were entitled to receive alimony from their divorcing husbands. And in majority of the cases, women won custody of the children.
The feminine principle in ancient Egyptian religion
The relative freedom and rights women enjoyed in ancient Egypt had to do with the belief set that prevailed in the land at the time. As stated in the introduction, Egyptian goddesses were of tremendous importance in maintaining stability as well as nourishing the people. The Egyptians had the utmost of reverence for Egyptian goddesses like Hathor, Isis , Ma’at , Neith, and many others.
It was the goddess Isis who used her magic to bring the murdered Osiris back to life. And had it not been for that action of hers, the Egyptians wouldn’t have known what mummification is. Without mummification and the proper embalming rituals, a deceased person’s chances of making it safely into the afterlife was very slim. Then there was Ma’at, the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, order and balance. It was believed Ma’at was the cosmic force that held the universe in perfect balance. Without her, chaos and destruction will ravage the land and cause untold suffering.
Therefore, the ancient Egyptians certainly appreciated the feminine principle which had been in existence right from the beginning. It’s said that before the universe came to being, the feminine principle and masculine principle had to be in a perfect balance. This belief can be seen in the myth of primordial deities Nu and Naunet – male and female respectively.
Read More: 10 Most Important Ancient Egyptian Goddesses
Egyptian women had control over their bodies
We in the modern might think of ourselves as more civilized in so many ways than the ancient Egyptians; however, we instantly get at each other’s (figuratively) whenever the issue of women having control over their bodies. Interestingly, the ancient Egyptians, a civilization thousands of years in the past, did not have this problem. Women could chose when to get pregnant, and even determine whether to keep the pregnancy or not. Ancient Egyptian physicians had potions, amulets and concoctions that women would use as birth control. Let’s take a moment to put things into perspective. The United States of America as at the late 1800s still had a ban on birth control pills.
Influential women and women rulers of ancient Egypt
Most of us are familiar with the role Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemaic Era played in not just Egyptian politics but also in Rome. It’s worth mentioning that long before Cleopatra, about two thousand years prior, ancient Egypt had the first known full-fledged female ruler. The woman was in the person of Sobekneferu, a Chief Royal Wife to the pharaoh, ascended to the throne and reigned from around 1806 to 1802 BC.
And even before Sobekneferu, Egypt had been graced by the presence of powerful female royal members who played active role in the affairs of the kingdom. There were the likes of Neithhotep and Merneith, both of who were prominent queens of the Old Kingdom. It’s said that following the death of her husband Pharaoh Djet, Merneith acted as regent to her young son Den.
Perhaps the most famous female ruler of ancient Egypt was Hatshepsut of the New Kingdom. A very well-educated senior wife of Thutmose II, Hatshepsut was initially appointed regent to her stepson/nephew Thutmose III. However, after careful political machinations, the powerful queen was able to crown herself pharaoh of Egypt.
And even down the social pyramid, women from wealthy families were allowed to gain the necessary education in order to become priestesses of famous temples in the land. The temple of the goddess Hathor at Dendera is famous, among other things, for having quite a number of priestesses and female scribes. It was also not uncommon for scribes to branch into the medical or teaching profession. This means that there were female doctors (such as Merit Ptah, 2700 B.C and Zipporah, 1500 B.C.), scribes, and teachers in ancient Egypt, while in some places of the ancient world, women weren’t allowed anywhere near an educational institution.
Women were not prevented from simply having a good time, especially those in the upper and middle class of the society. Many of those women were encouraged by their families to read and pursue higher learning.
Such was Egypt’s society enabling for women that women from other parts of the Mediterranean sailed to Egypt in order to acquire specialist training in a chosen field. Most notable of those women was Agnodice of Athens, who went to Egypt to study medicine.
Read More: 8 Great Female Rulers of Ancient Egypt
Women running their own business in ancient Egypt
Since bread baking, weaving, beer making and other domestic activities often fell within the typical kinds of jobs that women had in ancient Egypt, it was entirely possible for some of them to make a business out of those activities. For example, it’s been noted that many of the beer brewing business were owned by women. Now, compare that to the deplorable conditions, in terms of property rights and other rights, women lived in say the 1800s in America. The fact that the two societies are millennia apart makes ancient Egypt come out as a beacon of women’s rights.
Being pretty was not enough
Similar to our modern world, ancient Egypt had deep appreciation for talented women. The pharaohs and high-ranking male officials paid handsomely to have concubines that weren’t only pretty but talented as well. In most cases, the patrons of those services demanded that the concubines had to have some kind of skill sets, say in sewing, weaving, music, and dancing.
There is no doubt whatsoever that women in ancient Egypt enjoyed far more rights than women in some places of the globe in the present day. And we are not talking about women living in repressive countries and what have you. Take the example of our country – it took more than two and half centuries for us to have a woman get elected as vice president of the United States. This is in by no means a criticism of our nation; instead, it more or less shows just how advanced ancient Egypt was when it came to equality and respect for women.