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Women in Iran, the Creation of Patriarchy 3000 BC 21st Century
Last Updated: October, 2009

Women & Children in the Babylonian Codes

The major preserved collections of Mesopotamian lawthe Code of Hammurabi, the middle Assyrian law, the Hittite Laws and Biblical law—are parallel, show continuity and reflect social conditions in specific ways and circumstances for over a thousand years up to around 1,000 BC. In these codes sexual behaviors are a lot more restricted compared to the past with more restrictions imposed on women then men. Hammurabi code has 282 laws, 73 cover subjects pertaining to marriage and sexual matters. Out of 112 middle Assyrian codes, 59 deal with the same topics and out of 200 Hittite laws only 26 cover these topics and are more restrictive of women than the other two.

The high frequency of restrictions and the punishments indicate social problems and at the same time the laws were intended to set down ideals of social behavior for both the sexes. Death penalty is prescribed for black magic, rape, incest, and certain kinds of abortions and for adultery committed by wives. Husbands could substitute members of their household including their wives, children or slaves instead of themselves to suffer punishments if found guilty. Women and children could be pawned away for several years to compensate the husbands’ debt. Women enslaved for such debts were required to provide sexual services for their new masters, while males were only required to contribute economically. The Hebrew Covenant Code (Exod 21:2-11) was also similar to the others in that man’s status is determined by his economic relations and a woman’s by her sexual relations and services.

Patriarchal society featured patrilineal descent, laws guaranteeing the inheritance rights of sons, and male dominance in property, sexual relations, and military, political and religious bureaucracies. The birth of sons was valued more and sons became main agents carrying rituals for the dead. They became the protectors of their families during and after life. Single men and women eunuchs, childless couples and even the high priestesses had to adopt male children to oversee their affairs as living and dead entities. The father’s authority over the children was unlimited. In Hummurabi’s code, a son, striking his father, could be punished by having his hand cut off. An adopted son renouncing his adoptive father could loose his tongue and in Hebrew law a son striking both his parents could be punished by death, which indicates some respect for the mother as well. The possibility of rebellious behavior by daughters is not mentioned in the codes. Daughter’s values were in their potential as brides and producers of sons. Bride price was received and was used to finance the acquisition of brides for sons. Patriarchy was fully in place by now.

Fathers of the bride and groom arranged marriages. Occasionally the bridegroom himself would negotiate. Betrothal and bridal gifts were paid to the bride’s father. The bride stayed in her father’s house until sexual union completed the marriage. In case of child brides she lived in her father-in-law’s house. Until the time the marriage was completed, she was regarded as a servant and her situation exposed her to many abuses. The legal texts are full of rape accounts concerning such child brides. If she was raped by the father in-law, there were severe penalties from death by drowning to monetary compensation depending whether his son had consummated the marriage earlier (death) and whether the child bride was a virgin at the time of rape (financial compensation). Marriages could also be completed by a marriage contract. Such contracts endowed the wife with property rights and specified conditions for her rights in case of divorce, secondary wives and protection against enslavement for her husbands’ debts. After the marriage was consummated, then the father of the bride gave her a dowry that passed on to her sons upon her death. The dowry was managed by the husband and only after his death the widow took over the management for the rest of her life, even if she remarried. If the husband took another wife and divorced his first wife because she bore no sons or was ill, he was responsible for her maintenance and she was entitled to stay in his house. If she chose to leave him, she was entitled to the return of her dowry. When a wife who has not given birth to sons dies, the father-in-law must return the bridal gift to the husband, and the husband must return the wife’s dowry to the father-in-law.

In general, the marriage systems generated patriarchal monogamous marriages, homogamy (same class marriages), strong emphasis on premarital chastity for women and a high degree of social control over the sexual behavior of women. Assets were distributed between both males and females (inheritance and dowry), nevertheless property passed from one male family head to another even though it went through women. Wife had a dowry but her husband managed it and had rights over it and after she died her sons inherited the dowry. If she had no sons and divorced her husband, the dowry went back to her father, which meant her rights were extremely limited. Furthermore these rights depended on her sexual and reproductive services to her husband and providing a son.

The new legal codes also gave legal power of husbands over their wives. The laws specified the men’s obligation to support his wife and identified his obligations toward her male relatives. Codes were made and enforced that obliged a woman to perform her economic role to the husband’s satisfaction. A man could divorce his wife or reduce her to the status of a slave and marry a second wife if she "persists in behaving herself foolishly wasting her house and belittling her husband" (code of Hammurabi #129). Multiple wives and concubines became fully institutionalized. As for her sexual obligations, the bride’s virginity was a condition for marriage. This probably was the first time ever such matters were seriously regulated and enforced by legal codes. Women became property of their husbands and this was the main reason why adultery was so severely punished. The wife belonged to her husband and owed him faithfulness, and any man committing such a crime had violated the husband’s property. In such cases the woman and her lover were condemned to death by drowning.

Honour killings were permitted in some areas and the husband and his male relatives could kill the offenders themselves. In most cases the guilty parties were taken to the king or a judge instead. The husband could forgive them both or have his wife’s nose cut off and turn the man into a eunuch. It is also for the first time that state’s apparatus are made responsible for regulating sexual and private matters that was entirely left to the families or husbands earlier on. The mode of punishment described in Biblical texts is public execution by stoning the victims (Ezekiel 16:38-40). Despite local variation almost all codes prescribe punishment for both the wife and her lover. In Assyrian law, severe punishments like cutting off the breast, ears or nose of the wives took place publicly by the officials and not the husbands. All codes allowed husbands the right to perform some physical punishment of their wives. All law codes distinguish between the guilty wife seeking sexual encounter with men other than her husband and women who were raped.

The rapists of virgin girls are normally put to death since they have spoiled their father’s property and if the girls could prove that they resisted the rapist they would go free (code of Hammurabi #130). All codes with respect to rape incorporated the principle that the injured party is the father or the husband and not the woman herself. Mother-son incest was punishable by death, while a father raping his daughter was sent into exile. If the rapist was single he had to pay the price of a virgin to the father, marry the girl with no provisions for divorcing her. The father could refuse the marriage part and keep the fine.

The laws gave fathers absolute power of disposal over their daughters with no consideration for the raped victim. Laws pertaining to miscarriage and abortion offer insight into the relationship of sex and class. Mesopotamian law allocated punishment according to class of the victim. If for example a blow caused a woman to abort and have a miscarriage the higher her status the more severe was the punishment for the aggressor. If the unborn baby or the pregnant woman had died, the aggressor was put to death regardless of the woman’s class. The principle underlying this legislation is that the crime could have deprived a father from a son and in case of his wife’s death, of her potential as a future child bearer. Self-induced abortions were also considered a public crime, an assault on the family and the king and were severely punished. In the thousand- year span discussed, patriarchal dominance moved from private practice into public law. The control of female sexuality previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, became a matter of state regulation, patriarchy and subjugation of women were institutionalized, regulated and enforced by the state and legal codes. New categories of women such as prostitutes were defined and regulated.

Cultic sexual service by men and women performed at the temples related to goddesses and fertility rites has a long history. Sacred prostitution, sex or marriage existed from Neolithic times and it was based on the assumption that the fertility of the land and the people depended on the celebration of the sexual power of fertility goddess. Fertility cults were celebrated extensively with free sexual activity by the worshippers in and around the temple grounds. The practice lasted for almost two thousand years in Mesopotamia and is differentiated from regular prostitution. The term that could roughly be translated as commercial prostitution appears frequently in Babylonian law codes.

The oldest record appears around 2,400 BC and a distinction is made between female and male prostitutes. The latter are listed as entertainers although they are described as transvestites. Such activities might have originated in the temples but they also derived from enslavement and sexual abuse of women and children through war and slavery. Slave owners rented out their female slaves as prostitutes and other masters set up commercial brothels staffed by slaves. Increasing dependence of farmers on loans at times of famine, drought and hardship also led to debt slavery. Women and children of both sexes were given up to cover loans and some ended up or were forced to work as prostitutes. By the middle of the second millennium BC, prostitution was well established as a likely occupation for poor men and women, it was legal and is listed as an occupation in the texts, however such individuals were regarded as low status.

 As the sexual regulation of women of the higher classes becomes firmly entrenched, the virginity of respectable daughters became an asset for the family. It became necessary to distinguish clearly and visibly between respectable and non-respectable women. The solution was to partially veil the respectable women. The law number 40 of the Middle Assyrian code was the first to introduce veiling regulation of the respected and married women. In this code, the lower class women, some servants, slaves and prostitutes are barred from veiling themselves publicly, while others were required to practice veiling. A closer study of the code indicates that the notion of respectable other than class is based on women’s sexual activity and association with a male head of a household.

As long as these women served a specific man and were under his protection they were good enough to be veiled, otherwise they were not regarded as respectable and if veiled would be severely punished publicly by flogging or having their ears cut off. The law also prescribes punishment for men who fail to report incidents of improper veiling by flogging or forced labor in king’s camps, which indicates resistance to such laws. For the first time in the history of area the state intervenes in prescribing the dress of women by passing laws and punishing the offenders (mainly the lower class women veiling themselves) harshly and publicly. However veiling practices were confined to Middle Assyrian kingdom, represented high status, were transitory and did not become universal until the conquest of Islam more than 1,000 years later.

Fixed and written law codes created sharply defined boundaries between classes and genders. Property rights and economic status of upper class women were protected, but women’s sexual rights were limited and eventually eroded. Their legal dependency to their husbands and fathers increased and was firmly established in law and custom. Such dependency eventually came to be regarded as natural and God-given. Goddesses still existed with their temples and priestesses. However supreme goddesses would gradually loose their power and became secondary to masculine gods. Goddesses who were major creators and ruled over the divine cosmos became god’s wives and daughters. Their fall was completed when monotheistic religions arrived with only one God with a masculine mentality, language and habits i.e. Judo-Christianity and Islam.

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