22 September 2008

Women: Great to Live in Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

As a woman, if you were to be transported back in time to the ancient world, Egypt was the place to land because Egyptian women fared a lot better than their counterparts in other ancient civilizations.

Women could own property, borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear in court as a witness, work outside the home, run businesses, inherit property, and live alone without male protection. In many cases they were idealised by men. While women could become Pharaoh only in very special circumstances, they were otherwise regarded as totally equal to men as far as the law was concerned. Of course, they were also equally subject to whatever responsibilities normally accompanied those rights.

Pharaohs' wives were revered as gods along with their husbands, and even shared their wealth. The queens were important, but few women ever ruled the country. It could happen only for a short time at the end of a dynasty when there were no men to take over.

Hatshepsut was the only strong woman ruler. When her husband died, she took over and ruled for her stepson because he was only five years old. She held power for about 20 years. Hatshepsut was referred to as "His Majesty" despite being a woman. She was depicted as a man, without breasts and wearing the costume of a ruling pharaoh, complete with false beard. When the queen died, her stepson erased her name from monuments and broke all her statues.

Nefertiti is the woman depicted in the famous bust, wearing a crown and necklace rich with jewels. She was the wife of Akhenaten and helped him establish a new city at Ahketaten (Amarna) on the east bank of the River Nile in Middle Egypt. Nefertiti is confused with Nefertari, who was the favorite wife of Ramses the Great around 1275 BC.

Even though women could own property, they did not take part in government business. That was most definitely a man's domain but in temple rituals, priestesses played some part.

Women who were not of the wealthy class dealt with every day living and usually were farmers or worked for others. Lower class women were servants. Their work included:

--Twice a day, fetching water and filling huge clay vessels that stood in the courtyard or by the doorway of every house. They also did most of the weaving, spinning linen thread from flax fibers.

--As farmers, women never handled tools with blades. They winnowed the grain, separating the stalks and seeds, and then they ground the grain for baking. Women helped to make wine and beer, and pressed oil from nuts and plants.

--Women did not wash dirty laundry! It was the job of the men to handle the laundry because it was washed in the Nile and there was a constant threat from crocodiles along the river banks.

--Women were sometimes hired as mourners to lead funeral processions. These women were paid to wail and cover their heads with dust. Behind them walked officials and the family group.

The Egyptians believed that joy and happiness were legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family as the major source of delight. If the marriage ended in divorce, the rights of the wife were equally protected. Generally, she was entitled to support from her husband, especially if she was rejected by him through no fault of her own. The amount might equal one third of the settlement or even more. If the bride ended up committing adultery (which was extremely frowned upon for both men and women), she still had certain rights to maintenance from her former husband.

Monogamy, except for some of the higher classes and royalty, was the rule for most ancient Egyptian couples. Love and emotional support were considered to be important parts of marriage. Some of the love poetry of particularly beautiful. You can actually feel the emotion.

Egyptians loved children as people and not just as potential workers and care-takers. Egyptians usually married within their own social group. Girls became brides when they were about 12, and boys married at about age 14.

Pleats, held in place with stiffening starch, were the main form of decoration, but sometimes a pattern of loose threads was woven into the cloth. Women wore simple, ankle-length sheath dresses with a shawl or cloak for cooler weather.

Women both rich and poor owned jewelry and wore make-up, especially eye paint as protection against infection. The favorite eye shadows were green and made of the powdered mineral, malachite, and black crushed lead ore for kohl.

Women loved perfume and rubbed scented oils into their skin to protect it against the harsh desert winds. Face creams, eye paints and body oils were kept in decorative glass and pottery bottles and jars.

Women paid great attention to their hair. Some colored it with henna and for the most part wore it short because of head infestations. The wealthy wore elaborate wigs made from human hair at ceremonial occasions and banquets.

They wore amulets as personal jewelry that were buried with them for use in the afterlife. Call me biased, but the more I learn this elegant civilization, the more in love with I am.