The Status of Women in Egyptian Society



An exception to most other ancient societies, Egyptian women achieved parity with Egyptian men. They enjoyed the same legal and economic rights, at least in theory, and this concept can be found in Egyptian art and contemporary manuscripts. The disparities between people's legal rights were based on differences in social class and not on gender. Legal and economic rights were afforded to both men and women.

It is interesting that when the Greeks conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E., Egyptian women were allowed more rights and privileges than Greek women, who were forced to live under the less equal Greek system.
Egyptian women's rights extended to all legally defined areas of Egyptian civilization. Women could manage, own, and sell private property, which included slaves, land, portable goods, servants, livestock, and money. Women could resolve legal settlements. Women could conclude any kind of legal settlement. Women could appear as a contracting partner in a marriage contract or a divorce contract; they could execute testaments; they could free slaves; women could make adoptions. Women were entitled to sue at law. This amount of freedom was at variance with that of the Greek women 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.

An Egyptian woman could acquire possessions in many ways. She could receive it as gifts or as an inheritance from her parents or husband. Or she could receive it from purchases with goods which she earned either through employment, or which she borrowed. A woman had claims to up to one-third of all the community property in her marriage. For example, 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, ( dowry), it remained hers, even though the husband often had the free use of it. In the event of a divorce her property had to be returned to her, in addition to any divorce settlement that might be stipulated in the original marriage contract.
On the death of a husband the woman inherited two-thirds of their community property, but the other one-third was divided among their 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 what he wished of his private property to his wife.
  2. If there were no children, and the husband did not wish his brothers or 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 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). 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.

Marriage

Marrige was a very important part af ancient Egyptian society. SOme people say it was almost a duty to get married. Compared to today's world, Egyptian marriages were very different; husbands could marry more than one wife, and people of close relations (first cousins, brothers and sisters, ect.) could also wed one another. For the most part, however, incest was frowned upon, except in the royal family, where incest was used to safeguard the dynastic succession.

There was no age limit as to when people could be married, but generally a girl did not get married until she had begun to menstruate at about the age of 14. Some documents state that girls may have been married at the age of eight or nine, and a mummy of an eleven year-old wife has also been found. Marriage required no religious or legal ceremony. There were no special bridal clothes, no exchange of rings, no change of names to indicate marriage, and no word meaning wedding.
A girl became universally acknowledged as a wife after she physically left the protection of her father's house and entered her new home. The new husband in no way became the new wife's legal guardian. The wife kept her independence, and still kept control her own assets. Although the husband usually controlled any joint property obtained during the marriage it was acknowledged that a share of this belonged to the wife; if and when the marriage ended, she could collect he share. If the husband died while married, the wife got one-third of her husband's property. re-marriage after widowhood was very common, and some grave sites indicate three or four marriages between one person.

Divorce was a private matter, and for the most part, the government did not interfere, unless upon the request of the "divorcees". Almost any excuse could be used to end a marriage, and an alliance could be terminated at will. Anyone who had drawn up a marriage contract would have to honor those terms, and those who hadn't could, if they wished, could invest in a legal document. Legal cases, however, were very unusual; most marriages ended with the wife moving back to the matrimonial home, returning to her family, therefore setting both parties free to marry again.
The more intimate parts of married life were very important to the Egyptians. They saw life as a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Much of their theology was based on the "cycle-principal". Sexual intercourse was a very important part of this cycle, and the Egyptians were not modest about sex, like today's society. The Egyptians, unlike us, were not concerned with the spiritual part of the afterlife, but rather about potency and fertility. Consequently, false penises were put on the mummified bodies of men, and artificial nipples were put on the mummified bodies of women. Both of these were designed to be fully functional in the afterlife.

Pregnancy was very important to ancient Egyptian women. A fertile woman was a successful woman. By becoming pregnant, women gained the respect of society, approval from their husbands, and the admiration of their less-fortunate sisters and sterile friends. Men needed to prove their "manliness" by fathering as many children as the possibly could, and babies were seen as a reason for boasting.


Although the mechanism of menstruation was not fully understood the significance of missing periods was clear, and many Egyptian women were able to determine if the were pregnant or not. If women were not sure, they could go to a doctor, who would perform a detailed examination of the woman's breasts eyes, and skin. If a woman was sterile, and could not produce babies, many men solved this problem by divorcing them. But this treatment was harsh, and for the most part, frowned upon. A more publicly-accepted way of solving the problem of sterility was adoption, and due to the short life expectancy and high birth rate, there was always a supply of orphaned children.

A mother named her child immediately following birth, thereby making sure the child would have a name in the afterlife in the unfortunate case of a miscarriage. The Egyptians feared the "second-death" even more than the first one. The second-death was the complete obliteration of all earthly memory, which is why names were so important to the Egyptians. Spells were painted on the coffin of the deceased to ensure nobody would forget him or her.
Many people say the Egyptian time was a good time to live. It seems that it was, at least, a nice place for women to live. It was filled with equality for them, and gave them some basic rights that today's society is lacking.
Copyright Joyce Tyldesley, via resource one