The status of ancient egyptian women Essay

This essay has a total of 3561 words and 14 pages.

the status of ancient egyptian women

The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society
Unlike the position of women in most other ancient civilizations, including that of
Greece, the Egyptian woman seems to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as the
Egyptian man-- at least in theory. This notion is reflected in Egyptian art and historical
inscriptions.

It is uncertain why these rights existed for the woman in Egypt but no where else in the
ancient world. It may well be that such rights were ultimately related to the theoretical
role of the king in Egyptian society. If the pharaoh was the personification of Egypt, and
he represented the corporate personality of the Egyptian state, then men and women might
not have been seen in their familiar relationships, but rather, only in regard to this
royal center of society. Since Egyptian national identity would have derived from all
people sharing a common relationship with the king, then in this relationship, which all
men and women shared equally, they were--in a sense--equal to each other. This is not to
say that Egypt was an egalitarian society. It was not. Legal distinctions in Egypt were
apparently based much more upon differences in the social classes, rather than differences
in gender. Rights and privileges were not uniform from one class to another, but within
the given classes, it seems that equal economic and legal rights were, for the most part,
accorded to both men and women.

Most of the textual and archaeological evidence for the role of women that survives from
prior to the New Kingdom pertains to the elite, not the common folk. At this time, it is
the elite, for the most part, who leave written records or who can afford tombs that
contain such records. However, from the New Kingdom onward, and certainly by the Ptolemaic
Period, such evidence pertains more and more to the non-elite, i.e., to women of the
middle and lower classes. Actually, the bulk of the evidence for the economic freedom of
Egyptian women derives from the Ptolemaic Period. The Greek domination of Egypt, which
began with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., did not sweep away Egyptian
social and political institutions. Both Egyptian and Greek systems of law and social
traditions existed side-by-side in Egypt at that time. Greeks functioned within their
system and Egyptians within theirs. Mixed parties of Greeks and Egyptians making
contractual agreements or who were forced into court over legal disputes would choose
which of the two legal systems in which they would base their settlements. Ironically,
while the Egyptians were the subjugated people of their Greek rulers, Egyptian women,
operating under the Egyptian system, had more privileges and civil rights than the Greek
women living in the same society, but who functioned under the more restrictive Greek
social and legal system.

WOMEN'S LEGAL RIGHTS
The Egyptian woman's rights extended to all the legally defined areas of society. From the
bulk of the legal documents, we know that women could manage and dispose of private
property, including: land, portable goods, servants, slaves, livestock, and money (when it
existed), as well as financial instruments (i.e., endowments and annuities). A woman could
administer all her property independently and according to her free will. She could
conclude any kind of legal settlement. She could appear as a contracting partner in a
marriage contract or a divorce contract; she could execute testaments; she could free
slaves; she could make adoptions. She was entitled to sue at law. It is highly significant
that a woman in Egypt could do all of the above and initiate litigation in court freely
without the need of a male representative. This amount of freedom was at variance with
that of the Greek woman who required a designated male, called a kourios, to represent or
stand for her in all legal contracts and proceedings. This male was her husband, father or
brother.

WOMEN'S PROPERTY RIGHTS
There were several ways for an Egyptian woman to acquire possessions and real property.
Most frequently, she received it as gifts or as an inheritance from her parents or
husband, or else, she received it through purchases--with goods which she earned either
through employment, or which she borrowed. Under Egyptian property law, a woman had claim
to one-third of all the community property in her marriage, i.e. the property which
accrued to her husband and her only after they were married. When a woman brought her own
private property to a marriage (e.g., as a dowry), this apparently remained hers, although
the husband often had the free use of it. However, in the event of divorce her property
had to be returned to her, in addition to any divorce settlement that might be stipulated
in the original marriage contract.

A wife was entitled to inherit one-third of that community property on the death of her
husband, while the other two-thirds was divided among the children, followed up by the
brothers and sisters of the deceased. To circumvent this possibility and to enable his
wife to receive either a larger part of the share, or to allow her to dispose of all the
property, a husband could do several things:

1) In the Middle Kingdom, he could draw up an imyt-pr, a "house document," which was a
legal unilateral deed for donating property. As a living will, it was made and perhaps
executed while the husband was still alive. In this will, the husband would assign to his
wife what he wished of his own private property, i.e., what he acquired before his
marriage. An example of this is the imyt-pr of Wah from el-Lahun. 2) If there were no
children, and the husband did not wish his brothers and sisters to receive two-thirds of
the community property, he could legally adopt his wife as his child and heir and bequeath
all the property to her. Even if he had other children, he could still adopt his wife, so
that, as his one of his legal offspring, she would receive some of the two-thirds share,
in addition to her normal one-third share of the community property.

A woman was free to bequeath property from her husband to her children or even to her own
brothers and sisters (unless there was some stipulation against such in her husband's
will). One papyrus tells us how a childless woman, who after she inherited her husband's
estate, raised the three illegitimate children who were born to him and their female
household slave (such liaisons were fairly common in the Egyptian household and seem to
have borne no social stigma). She then married the eldest illegitimate step-daughter to
her younger brother, whom she adopted as her son, that they might receive the entire
inheritance.

A woman could also freely disinherit children of her private property, i.e., the property
she brought to her marriage or her share of the community property. She could selectively
bequeath that property to certain children and not to others.

WOMEN IN CONTRACTS
Women in Egypt were consistently concluding contracts, including: marriage and divorce
settlements, engagements of wet-nurses, purchases of property, even arrangements for
self-enslavement. Self-enslavement in Egypt was actually a form of indentured servitude.
Although self-enslavement appears to have been illegal in Egypt, it was practiced by both
men and women. To get around the illegality, the servitude was stipulated only for a
limited number of years, although it was usually said to be "99 years." Under
self-enslavement, women often technically received a salary for their labor. Two reasons
for which a woman might be forced into such an arrangement are:

(1) as payment to a creditor to satisfy bad debts;
(2) to be assured of one's provisions and financial security, for which a person might
even pay a monthly fee, as though they were receiving a service. However, this fee would
equal the salary that the provider had to pay for her labor; thus, no "money" would be
exchanged. Since this service was a legal institution, then a contract was drawn up
stipulating the conditions and the responsibilities of the involved parties.

In executing such an arrangement, a woman could also include her children and
grandchildren, alive or unborn. One such contract of a woman who bound herself to the
temple of Saknebtynis states:

The female servant (so & so) has said before my master, Saknebtynis, the great god, 'I am
your servant, together with my children and my children's children. I shall not be free in
your precinct forever and ever. You will protect me; you will keep me safe; you will guard
me. You will keep me sound; you will protect me from every demon, and I will pay you 1-1/4
kita of copper . . . until the completion of 99 years, and I will give it to your priests
monthly.'

If such women married male "slaves," the status of their children depended on the
provisions of their contracts with their owners.

WOMEN BEFORE THE BAR
Egyptian women had the right to bring lawsuits against anyone in open court, and there was
no gender-based bias against them, and we have many cases of women winning their claims. A
good example of this fact is found in the Inscription of Mes. This inscription is the
actual court record of a long and drawn- out private land dispute which occurred in the
New Kingdom. Significantly, the inscription shows us four things: (1) women could manage
property, and they could inherit trusteeship of property; (2) women could institute
litigation (and appeal to the court of the vizier); (3) women were awarded legal decisions
(and had decisions reversed on appeal); (4) women acted as witnesses before a court of
law.

However, based upon the Hermopolis Law Code of the third century B.C., the freedom of
women to share easily with their male relatives in the inheritance of landed property was
perhaps restricted somewhat. According to the provisions of the Hermopolis Law Code, where
an executor existed, the estate of the deceased was divided up into a number of parcels
equal to the number of children of the deceased, both alive and dead. Thereafter, each
male child (or that child's heirs), in order of birth, took his pick of the parcels. Only
when the males were finished choosing, were the female children permitted to choose their
parcels (in chronological order). The male executor was permitted to claim for himself
parcels of any children and heirs who predeceased the father without issue. Female
executors were designated when there were no sons to function as such. However, the code
is specific that--unlike male executors--they could not claim the parcels of any dead
children.

Still, it is not appropriate to compare the provisions of the Hermopolis Law Code to the
Inscription of Mes, since the latter pertains to the inheritance of an office, i.e., a
trusteeship of land, and not to the land itself. Indeed, the system of dividing the estate
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