Rights Of Egyptian Women Essay Research Paper

Rights Of Egyptian Women Essay, Research Paper Rights of Egyptian Women Throughout written history, women have experienced status subservient to the men they lived with. Generally, most cultures known to modern historians

Rights Of Egyptian Women Essay, Research Paper

Rights of Egyptian Women

Throughout written history, women have experienced status subservient to

the men they lived with. Generally, most cultures known to modern historians

followed a standard pattern of males assigned the role of protector and provider

while women were assigned roles of domestic servitude. Scholars speculate

endlessly at the cause: biology, religion, social custom. Nevertheless, the

women were always subordinated to the men in their culture. Through their

artwork, tomb inscriptions, and papyrus and leather scrolls, preserved in the

dry, desert air, Ancient Egyptians left evidence for scholars suggesting that

Egypt was once a peculiar exception to this pattern. Anthropological evidence

suggests that unusual circumstances in Ancient Egyptian culture provided for

women to be given equal status to their male counterparts: notably, matrilineal

inheritance and emphasis on the joy of family life over maintaining ethnic


Legally, women in Ancient Egypt held the same legal rights as men. A

woman could own property and manage it as she saw fit. One example of this, the

Inscription of Mes, provided scholars with proof that women could manage

property, institute litigation, and could act as a witness before a court of law.

Surviving court documents not only showed that women were free to take action

with the court, but the documents also show that they frequently won their cases.

They could also enter contracts and travel freely, unescorted, throughout the

state. This is a great contrast to women in Greece, who were required to act

through a male representative. Interestingly, property and its administration

was passed from mother to daughter, matrilineally. The Egyptians relied on

matrilineal heritage, based on the assumption that maternal ancestors are less

disputable than paternal ones. The effect of legal equality in writing and

practice coupled with the ownership and administration of property led to an

ensured equality.

The rights and egalitarian conditions enjoyed by Egyptian women shocked

the conquering Greeks. In 450 BC, Greek historian Herodotus noted:

They Egyptians, in their manners and customs, seem to have reversed the

ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend market and are

employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving. Athenian Democracy

mandated that the female’s role in the domestic economy was the production of

heirs and service of the family. The Egyptian state took no direct part in

either marriage nor divorce and made no efforts to regulate the family. The

purpose of the Egyptian family was apparently not the production of heirs for

the patriarchal head of household, but the shared life and the pleasures and

comfort it had to offer.

The legal subjugation of women in other societies seems to have been

designed to ensure that women were denied sexual freedom to prevent them from

indiscriminate breeding. Often, this was a direct result of the need to provide

a pure ruling elite and to restrict the dispersal of family assets within a

caste. The unique position of the god-king and the absence of a strictly

defined “citizen” class made similar considerations irrelevant in Egypt. Modern

Scholars are thoroughly aware that Egypt was greatly mixed, racially, and that

no written evidence exists of racial tensions or bias. This was most likely the

cause of lax sexual restrictions. The Egyptians simply did not care about

maintaining racial purity.

With the exception of the Pharaoh, all marriages were monogamous and

women had the right to arrange the terms of the marriage contract.

Realistically, marriages were not polygamous. Many records survive of men

raising children born to them of the household servants. Social stigma against

married men having affairs was mild, yet married women were socially obligated

to be faithful to their husbands. Unlike most societies, however, men having

sex with married women were persecuted more severely than their partners.

Egyptian Art tells us the primarily of the women in the upper castes.

Grave murals and reliefs depict wives standing next to their husbands.

Archaeologist have yet to discover any evidence of domestic constriction.

Daughters and Wives were free to live independently of male dominance of

influence. It is believed from various murals, however, that women were also

“put on a pedestal” by their culture. Egyptian art was reflective of their

conservative culture where art was Artistic convention of Egyptian and Aegean

art depicts women as fairer skinned than their male companions. Generally, art

historians have concluded that this was a both and artistic convention

expressing the social ideals of the vigorous male with a more refined female and

representation of the fact that women were often relieved of working out in the

hot, Egyptian sun.

Unfortunately, the privilege of Ancient Egyptian women does not

constitute the modern connotation of true freedom. Women were officially denied

positions of public office although surviving records indicated that many women

help low-profile positions during time of need in Middle Kingdom. Also,

positions in business and government were patrilineally passed from father to

son because of the domestic role expected of the woman. The population of

Ancient Egypt was frequently in decline due to disease and periodic famines.

The life expectancy for the average Egyptian was a little higher than 40 years.

Such a low life-expectancy coupled with a high infant mortality rate ingrained a

notion of the transience of life in the mind of the Egyptian. Childbirth was

such a national priority that Pharaohs, such as Akhenaton, began representing

scenes of their domestic life as acts of royal propaganda to increase the birth

rate (Tansey, 91)

Fertility was a prime obsession in the Ancient Egyptian mind. A fertile

woman was a successful woman. The low life-expectancy and mortality rate for

pregnancies made childbearing the most attractive trait a women could offer.

However, unlike their Greek and Roman successors, the Egyptians conceived

children for the joys of parenthood, not the continuity of male lineage. The

expectant mother was greeted with desire from men and envy from other women.

Upon proving her fertility, the Egyptian also enjoyed an elevation in status to

the highly esteemed level of “mother.” Mothers had an important and respected

role within the family, and were frequently represented in positions of honor in

the tombs of both their husband and sons. Parenthood is so stressed in Egyptian

culture that parents would take the name of their eldest son (father/mother

of….). Fertility obsession was equally stressed on the males. Ancient

Egyptian men were sometimes known to commit suicide, rather than admit to being

unable to conceive a child. Joyce Tyldesley expresses it best in her book ,

Daughters of Isis:

Both husband and wife appear to have loved their offspring dearly, and

Egyptian men had no misplaced macho feelings that made them embarrassed or

ashamed of showing affection towards their progeny. (Tyldesley, 47)

Understandably, not every Egyptologist shares Tydeslesy’s idealistic view of

ancient Egyptian culture.

The reliability of surviving records from Ancient Egypt is frequently

questioned by most Egyptologists. With such a complex writing system, the

majority of the population was illiterate. All presently discovered surviving

scrolls were written by professional male scribes. While the legal documents

accurately reflect the legal status of women, the more personal writing and

historical documents are more likely to carry a male-bias. Much of the poetry

and musical lyrics describe women as lustful, loyal, yet beautiful. They often

reflect male fantasies of helplessly love-stricken beauties and are only

marginally used to build an understanding of the Egyptian culture. Egyptian

secular literature typically views women in a less positive light. Written for

an all-male audience, women play secondary or antagonistic parts to a male hero

in every surviving tale but one. The one exception involves a helpless man

continuously saved by his wife’s swift thinking. Mythological literature,

considering the greater expanse of its audience, portrays women in a more

egalitarian light. Collected Egyptian mythology, with a greater variety of

characters than Greek and Roman combined, portrays many goddesses in every role

imaginable. The most popular goddess, Isis, personified the ideal wife and

mother in her never-ending love for her family and resourcefulness in protecting

her son from her husband’s murderer. Contemporary Christian iconography is

believed to be derived from images of Isis, holding her son, Horus, in her lap.

In conclusion, the woman of Ancient Egypt held rights and maintained

liberties enviable to many women today. Legal equality and land ownership gave

women political power and financial independence while the devastation of

disease and high mortality rates made motherhood a respected and appreciated

institution. Domestic subjugation was avoided by the absence of a notion of

racial purity, freeing the woman’s sexuality and preventing external

interference of the family. Although few of the records left are accurate

enough to give us an undisputable perception of Ancient Egyptian culture,

historians generally agree that the Egyptian woman had much more freedom than

her contemporaries. The necessity for children locked many women in full-time

motherhood, yet records indicated that they were appreciated for the happiness

they brought to the home and the children they brought into the family. The

study of Ancient Egypt takes relevance today in modern life because it provides

suggestions towards the origins of modern patriarchy by providing scholars with

an examples of conditions that brought about a particularly benign development

of male-dominance in Ancient Egypt.

Sources Cited:

Tansey, Richard. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Fort Worth: Harcourt

Brace Publishers, 1996 91-93.

Tyldesley, Joyce. Daughters of Isis. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1994.


Ahmed, Leila. Women and gender in Islam: historical roots of a modern

debate. London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Lesko, Barbara S. Women’s Earliest Records. Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1989.

Piccione, Peter A. “The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society”

History of Ancient Egypt Page.

http://www.library.nwu.edu/class/history/B94/B94women.html 16 Oct, 1996

Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Publications, 1993.

Tucker, Judith E. Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers.

Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Tyldesley, Joyce. Daughters of Isis. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1994.

Unesco. Social Science Research and Women in the Arab World. London:

Frances Pinter, 1984.

Watterson, Barbara. Women in Ancient Egypt. Great Britain: Alan

Sutton Publishing, 1991.