Women & Children in Ancient Mesopotamia
Patriarchy is a historic creation formed by men and women in a process which took over 2,500 years to complete. In its earliest form, it appeared as the archaic state with the patriarchal family as the basic unit of organization. In the process human society was divided into two sexes, and the notion of gender was created, defined and established. The roles and behavior appropriate to each sex was expressed in values, customs, laws and social roles. By the time major organized religions of the area were consolidated to order and rationalize the universe, subordination of women to men had become natural for both the sexes. Once relationship of humans to God was organized in major explanatory systems (religion or philosophy), metaphors, language and symbols further incorporated the assumption of female inferiority and subordination.
This brief article will trace the development of patriarchy in ancient Mesopotamia from its earliest stages in ancient Sumer from 3000 BC to the present time in Iran. Although, Iranians had not appeared on the scene during the Sumerian period they were greatly affected by the earlier cultures of the area including Assyrian and Babylonia, which were in turn influenced by the Sumerian era. Furthermore, the Islamic legal code was greatly influenced by the Jewish covenant code, which in turn was affected by Ancient Mesopotamian law codes. Histories of the Near East usually start around 3,000 BC. This date coincides with the beginning of the Bronze Age and the establishment of fully urban, relatively stable, and developed societies in Mesopotamia (Iraq), in the Levant (Israel, Jordan and Syria), Iran, Central Asia, the Indus valley, Anatolia (Turkey) and Egypt. The first written documents to yield some coherent sense appear around this time. A range of different social and professional groupings exists in texts and people are differentiated in terms of status, wealth and gender.
Generally men had more rights than women and their pre-eminent position was guaranteed by the king’s orders and loosely formed legal codes. A close study of such texts reveals how gradually men’s superior legal and social status was created and consolidated over time. In general, texts indicate that women had freedom of movement, and the ability to buy and sell, attend to legal matters for their absent men, own their own property, borrow and lend, and engage in business for themselves with extensive employment opportunities. They were occasionally trained as scribes and upper class women were educated. Polygamy was practiced mainly amongst the rich and upper classes. High status women, such as priestesses and members of the royal families had considerable administrative authority with their seals and employees. Numerous powerful goddesses were worshiped; in some city-states they were the primary deities. Women's position varied between city-states and changed over time. There was an enormous gap between the rights of high and low status women. Some rare documents reveal the beginning of restrictions applied to women. One text reads as follows: " women in former times each had two men, but women of today have been made to give up that crime", probably indicating an end to the practice of having more than one husband (polyandry). The punishment for such women in the late Sumerian period was stoning to death.
In another document a king orders that, "a woman guilty of speaking disrespectfully to a man shall have her mouth crushed with a hot brick". The brick was to be displayed at the city gates for all to see (Steible and Behens 1982). Freedom of sexual relationships between the sexes existed and becomes more regulated and restricted as time goes by. Heavy divorce taxes were eliminated to reform the tax law, as a result married men and women who had left their spouses and lived with their lovers were forced to divorce first before entering a live-in relationship with another person. Some texts also indicate that there might have been restrictions with respect to widowed women remarrying. This was very likely related to inheritance in order to protect the children’s assets that they inherited from their fathers. Nevertheless, it restricted widowed women’s ability to remarry. Such restrictions are not known to exist with respect to the widowed husbands.
There is merging of divine and secular power personified by the king and the queen. The two represent powerful gods and goddesses and rule on earth on their behalf. Queens are buried with the same magnificence as their husbands with jewelry, symbolic objects, crowns, slaves, high status companions, guards and animals such as horses. The royal tombs indicate that the ruling queens shared in the status, power, wealth, and aspiration of divinity with kings. Musicians and dancers of both sexes were highly praised and earned wages by performing at the courts and temples and for the rich people. Other documents reveal the wealth and high status of other women at the Sumerian courts, of their varied skills, their economic privilege and at the same time judging by the vast number of females buried alongside the queens and kings their greater vulnerability and dependency as servants, slaves and concubines. The last two were mainly war captives and from foreign origins. Physical terror and coercion in form of rape was used to subdue these women and once pregnant guaranteed the loyalty of the captives and their offspring to their masters. However, institutionalization of concubines and prostitution or pawning one’s wife and children as evident in the legal codes happened later during the Babylonian period. Children belonged to their fathers and there is no indication that they were regarded as illegitimate even if they were born from slaves, servants or concubines.
The Sumerian period ends with the conquests of King Sargon of Akkad and formation of the Akkadian empire (2340 BC) extending over Sumer, Ashur (Assyria), Kish (western Iran) and Elam (southern Iran). Sargon ruled by entrusting his domain to loyal and trusted persons including his capable and charismatic daughter Enkheduanna who was made the high-priestess of the temple of Moon-God in the city of Ur, and of the temple of An, the supreme God of Heaven, at the city of Uruk. She is the first known woman poet in history and her poems were widely copied and circulated throughout the kingdom. The practice of appointing princely priestesses to manage major temples was followed for 500 years following Sargon and existed in the Sumerian period as well. Such women normally remained unmarried. The written records indicate that 13 such women held office for an average of 35 to 40 years from 2280 to 1800 BC. Enkheduanna was installed as the cultic bride of the Moon-God and played a prominent role in certain rituals at both the temples and as a spiritual leader became an advisor to the elite.
Her presence was also designed to strengthen the king’s hold on southern Mesopotamia. After Sargon’s death, the new ruler of Ur removed her from this position. Once Sargon’s grandson managed to exert control over the city again he appointed his daughter Enmenanna as the high priestess of the temple at Ur. Sargon was from humble origins and became a legend and stories about his birth circulated around for centuries to come. The famous stories about Moses and Cyrus the Great’s circumstances of birth resemble other variations of the same stories. It is interesting to note that in poems and legends surrounding Sargon’s birth his father is unknown and his lineage is only traced through his presumably high status mother. Akaddian language of the time lacked terms for father’s brothers and sisters. Matrilineal descent still existed and survived all the way to the Sassanian period. At this time, the royal blood was assumed to be carried by both the male and female members of the royal family. The practice continued in Islamic Iran by the Shi'ite imams and seyyeds, individuals tracing their lineage to Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima.
Akkadian conquest and control over a number of city-states boasted the ancient tradition of dynastic and diplomatic marriages amongst various ruling families. This was a higher and more elaborate form of "exchange of women" that was practiced for thousands of years earlier. The daughters of royalty and upper class families were trained, educated and became actively involved in politics in order to function as informants and diplomatic representatives of their families. Though this gave them status and power they nevertheless became objects in the hands of their families and quite often were punished or banished by their husbands at times of crisis and wars.
Free women in the Sargonic Empire had extensive business dealings. Monogamy was the norm with the majority and some kings and rich men practiced polygamy. There were two or three children per family. Infant abandonment and sales exists in the records but is not widely practiced. Breast-feeding could last for up to three years and was recognized as a contraceptive method to decrease fertility. Older brothers and maternal uncles are frequently mentioned in documents with respect to leading family affairs, a likely continuation of older matrilineal influence and inheritance patterns. There also seems to be patrilineal inheritance in which the older son does not have any advantage over other sons.
The end of the third millennium BC saw the appearance of a new political entity, the third dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BC). They basically maintained the same political and social organizations as before with little change in women’s status. Upper class women had far more rights and privileges compared to ordinary men and women. The legal texts indicate that women could testify in court and frequently made contracts. Both free and slave women appeared in courts. Daughters did not inherit if there were sons, but received gifts from the estate. One text mentions the inheritance received by a widow and it appears that widows did inherit from their husband’s estate. In one document a women dissolved her marriage by a one sided declaration. Lower class women were heavily exploited by the administration. They worked in forced labor camps and received fewer rations than men. There was no welfare system but women and children from poor families were "dedicated" to the state. They were categorized and employed by the state in weaving and processing wool workshops.
Fewer men worked under the same categories at the workshops and such labor camps mainly consisted of women and children who did not live long under the wretched conditions. Children could also be sold into slavery. In other workshops and factories males and females both were employed and women normally received half the wages or the rations male workers received. The situation of women varied from one city-state to another and in some like the kingdom of Mari (Iraq-Syria border) women were far better off than in other places. Married women had all the privileges of those in other city-states and enjoyed more status and independence, particularly the royal women. Queens acted as their husband’s "stand-in" and regent in their absence. They had their own independent administration and functioned as priestesses, diviners and prophetesses. Political marriages were important and in one occasion King Zimri-Lim married her daughter Kirum to a local ruler Khaya-sumu and at the same time appointed her as the mayor of her husbands’ city.
The structure of the family did not change much. Monogamy still was the norm with majority and there are words for the family units in local languages. However, such words had wider implications and included slaves and all who lived in the same household. Local variations existed. In some areas a brother was obliged to pay for part of a house held by his family. In others, extended families lived together and pursued economic ventures together. Marriages were both a matter of exchange where families of bride and groom contributed and also involved a change of status for both the families with the brides’ family paying more into the marriage. Brides were a lot younger than the grooms and childhood—as a time before one had to work—was short. Inheritance varied from region to region and usually was equally divisible among all male heirs with an extra portion for the first son. Women also received some inheritance or gifts and in cases when there was an adoptive son they also received a share. Rich families to stop diluting the inheritance by more heirs might dedicate their daughters to the temples where they remained unmarried. Such high status women controlled land and other assets they owned and became major sources for loans of all sots and were heavily involved in real estate deals. Such women chose their heirs and frequently passed on their wealth to younger women dedicated to the temples. Nevertheless the elite women’s powers in all these city-states derived entirely from their husbands or fathers and in matters of sexuality they were utterly subordinate to men. However, the absence of formally written law codes created flexibility and women, though realistically dependents of men, still enjoyed a lot more freedom than the next generations would do in the hands of the Babylonians when law codes would institutionalize oppression of women.