الاثنين، 8 أغسطس، 2011

Women in Ancient Egyptian Civilizations


Unlike the position of, 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 life 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. Such action is recorded in the Will of Naunakht.

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 usfour 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 theHermopolis 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 described in the l aw code--or something similar to it- -might have existed at least as early as the New Kingdom, since the Instructions of Any contains the passage, "Do not say, 'My grandfather has a house. An enduring house, it is called' (i.e., don't brag of any future inheritance), for when you take your share with your brothers, your portion may only be a storehouse."

WOMEN IN PUBLIC:

The Egyptian woman in general was free to go about in public; she worked out in the fields and in estate workshops. Certainly, she did not wear a veil, which is first documented among the ancient Assyrians (perhaps reflecting a tradition of the ancient semitic- speaking people of the Syrian and Arabian Deserts). However, it was perhaps unsafe for an Egyptian woman to venture far from her town alone.

Ramesses III boasts in one inscription, "I enabled the woman of Egypt to go her own way, her journeys being extended where she wanted, without any person assaulting her on the road." A different view of the traveling women is found in the Instructions of Any, "Be on your guard against a woman from abroad, who is not known in town, do not have sex with her." So by custom, there might have been a reputation of impiousness or looseness associated with a woman traveling alone in Egypt.

Despite the legal freedom of women to travel about, folk custom or tradition may have discouraged that. So, e.g., earlier in the Old Kingdom, Ptahhotep would write, "If you desire to make a friendship last in a house to which you have access to its master as a brother or friend in any place where you might enter, beware of approaching the women. It does not go well with a place where that is done."

However, the theme of this passage might actually refer to violating personal trust and not the accessibility of women, per se. However, mores and values apparently changed by the New Kingdom. The love poetry of that era, as well as certain letters, are quite frank about the public accessibility and freedom of women. 

MARRIAGE

Marrige was a very important part af ancient Egyptian society. Some people say it was almost a duty to get married. 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.


The First Women Doctor in Ancient Egypt

Like mathematics and astronomy, medicine was quite well-developed in the Old Kingdom. Many of the physicians sunu were attached to the royal palace. Among them, there were degrees of specialization. Specialists included the physician of the eyes of the Great House sunu irty per-aa: an oculist. Other physicians were also described as dentists, entereo-gastrits, etc.

Medical instructions and precepts were written down as early as the Fifth Dynasty (2465-2322 B.C.). In the Vizier (Prime Minister) Wash-Ptahs tomb at Saqqara, an event is recorded in which the King, Neferirkare Kakai (2446-2436 B.C.), ordered the chief of physicians to bring books with which to cure an illness from which his high official suffered. Some medical works of later times - such as the so-called Edwin Smith Papyrus, for example - have been credited with great antiquity.

In 1930, in a text entitled Excavations at Giza I, 1929-1930, Dr. Selim Hassan published the stela of Peseshet, which was discovered within an Old Kingdom tomb{3}. Dr. Hassan translated Peseshets title as follows: "Overseer of the doctors." In fact, the word imyt-r, "overseer," does exist for the feminine gender. Moreover, the word swnu (sunu), "doctor," is written in the text with the grammatical ending for the feminine gender, the symbol for "t". It is clear, then, that Peseshet was a woman doctor (swnwt) and the director (imyt-r) of the women doctors (swnwwt). The fact that the word swnu, "physician," was used declares that this title involved a question of medicine. That the word "swnwt" was used indicates a woman physician.

Lady Peseshet had another title which reads as follows: imyt-r hm(wt)-ka, that is "woman director of the soul-priestesses." The soul-priests (or priestesses) were appointed to tend the funerary cults of private persons. As we know, women in Egyptian society enjoy high social and professional status like men. All professions were open to educated women and men, including the clergy, administration, business, and medicine, among other fields.

Apparently There was a body of female physicians in Ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom and Lady Peseshet was their director. The contemporary problem of exlucing women in special professions was absent in Ancient Egypt.

There were more than a hundred prominent female physicians in Ancient Egypt. In contrast, we do not know of any female physicians in Mesoptamian history. The medical historiography must include the fact that Lady Peseshet was indeed the first female physician in Africa and in world history. This is a fact absolutely verifiable: historical scholarship in Europe, in Africa, and across the globe has not previously brough this important historical moment to the consciousness of humanity.


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