|Women in Mesopotamia
By Ivanna Mejia
History Blue - Mesopotamia Unit
When someone would mention Mesopotamia, some of the first words that would come to mind would be: the first civilization, Cuneiform, the invention of the wheel, Hammurabi’s codes of law and so forth. Something rare that would come to mind would be about women. Women throughout history is a topic that many people don’t know about; that people wouldn’t even mention it but that is usual. It is evident that Mesopotamia was the first civilization, and that it has contributed a lot to how countries are civilized now. The issue though is that men are the ones who are thought of when thinking about civilizations such as Mesopotamia. Why men? Are men more important than women? Women in Ancient Mesopotamia have contributed a lot to everything that makes up the world now. The only issue that didn’t permit women to be free was the restrictions and laws that they had to follow. Otherwise, Mesopotamian women are half as wise and intelligent as men. They have not even studied but they are the ones who bring people, children, into this world. Without their difficult work inside and outside the home, their encouragement to their children and husbands, and their effort to maintain their families, the Mesopotamian life wouldn’t have been the same.
Women in Mesopotamia did not have many rights in their society. There are different texts and people that have opposite beliefs and opinions about these women. The holy bible and the Koran share some of the same views; one of them being their perspective about Mesopotamian women. The bible portrays women as inferior and subject to men. In fact, the holy bible talks about the famous Adam and Eve story, which according to the bible, they were the first two people who lived on earth. Eve was the woman and God had told Adam and her to not eat from a specific tree but they could enjoy any of the other trees. Being disobedient, Eve was given a rotten apple from this specific tree by an evil snake and she ate it. From this day on, the bible points out that the women in general are the ones that have brought all of the sins and failures to the world. This could be contradictable. The Koran is another text that presents the same perspective as the bible. In Surah 4:39, it says, “Men are superior to women, Allah having preferred them.” Both of these religious texts have qualities that show anti-feminism; they are not favorable of women. On the other hand, in the book Bibliotheca Historica which was written by Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek authentic writer, Diodorus wrote “women rank before men.” In other words, he believed that women were more important than men.
At the palace of Mari, women were from different social levels and differed from other women in Mesopotamia. At this palace, many letters were found from the second wives of the kind, Queen Shiptu, the king’s main wife, the king’s daughters and many other women who worked in the kingdom. These letters are the evidence of the daily lives of royal women at the palace of Mari and in Mesopotamia. Queen Shiptu was the daughter of one of the powerful kings, and she became the “palace’s first lady.” In other words, she became the queen, and she was powerful compared to women in the Mesopotamian society. When her husband wasn’t there, she was the one who was in charge. Queen Shiptu was devoted to her husband and royalty; she did not have to deal with house duties like other women did. Also, the royal women in Mesopotamia were women like Queen Shiptu and her daughters. The kings married their daughters to other kings and their sons. In these marriages, the royal families made agreements and alliances. In Zimri Lim’s, the king of this palace, situation, he married his daughters to other kings to try to get more property.
Even though Zimri-Lim tried to take advantages of his daughters’ husbands’ properties, women had to obey Hammurabi’s code of laws in Mesopotamia. Hammurabi was the king of Babylon at the time. He created the first set of laws because he believed that the gods called upon him to put order and justice. Most of these laws were based on family especially women. In Mesopotamia, mostly all women were considered second-class citizens; the other ones were either slaves or are of a royal status. One of Hammurabi’s codes of law states that the woman or wife has to be with her husband until he wants to divorce her if he ever wants to do so. If she is the one that wants to divorce him, she cannot do so or it will cause her death. Almost all of these laws are unjust for women because it demonstrates how men have authority toward women and control them. Some laws are opposing in Hammurabi’s code. Law number 209 says “If a man has struck the daughter of a free man and caused her to cast that which was in her womb, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.”1 This law protects Mesopotamian women’s rights, while the Assyrian law doesn’t. “A man may flog his wife, he may pull out her hair, he may damage and split her ears. There is nothing wrong in this.”2 is one of the Assyrian laws, which shows us how the Assyrian women were treated in a more bashful way than the other Mesopotamian women.
Let’s go back to the process of how these women became subject to men. First of, the girl lived in her father’s house, and her father chooses whom she would marry. The girl did not have a decision on whom to marry; her father decided it all. Clearly, the marriage’s purpose was for property ownership. In other words, it was for the father’s convenience. In page 114, marriage meant to “ take possession of one’s wife” in Mesopotamia. 3 They married the families, and not a man and a woman. Before the marriage, the husband-to-be gives the father the money for his purchase. Then, the father would take that money and add some more and give it to his daughter, which is called a dowry. This is for her to keep and it is her property, so no one has the right to take this away from her. The wife-to-be has to stay is either her husband’s or father’s house. If the wife stays at her father’s house, then the husband has to give his wife a dumaki. A dumaki is an amount of money that is only used for the house and living necessities. If the woman’s husband dies and he has no family members meaning no sons or brothers, than the wife could keep the dumaki; it would be her property like the dowry. Later on, the marriage ceremony will occur. It is traditional for the groom to pour perfume over the bride’s head and give her all sorts of presents on their wedding day. As well, the couple has to have a marriage contract because it is the evidence of their marriage, and it is one of Hammurabi’s codes.
Marriage auctions also took place in Mesopotamia. In these marriage auctions, women were put in a line from the most beautiful to the most horrible. The men would then pay the highest prices for the most beautiful women. The women would literally be auctioned. The men who had less money like the commoners would get the most awful looking women to be their wives. There were also Naditu women, who were unique in Mesopotamia, but they weren’t auctioned for marriage. These women did not live in what is known as the “normal” society. They could own, trade and do business transactions which women were not allowed to do back in those days. Naditu is also an Akkadian name for women who came back home after their death. They usually spun or wove, but they were not married, and they could not have children. Believe it or not, but most of these women were writers which was unusual.
Unfortunately, girls did not go to school unless they were from wealthy, professional or royal families. Like women, girls had no rights at all, and they were treated similarly to women too. Girls stayed home with their mothers to learn how to do chores, cook and do weaving or spinning. As well, they began to care for their younger siblings and help their mothers in all of their duties. These girls are not like girls from nowadays; they did not care about fashion at those times. Common women of Mesopotamia had long dark hair and dressed in different geometric patterns such as stripes, polka dots and even different bright colors. In 2370 BC in Mesopotamia, men and women wore long types of robes usually made from wool, and it looked like a skirt but more like a shawl.4 Most Babylonians and Assyrians wore tunics and shawls. Women and girls usually wore short skirts as underwear.
Women in Mesopotamia had an array of laws to follow, rights, duties, responsibilities, and everyday life chores. They were considered subject to men, but at the same time they had independence. Even though women had to marry who ever their father’s wanted them to marry, they had the right to own properties. Mesopotamian women were real women; women who probably are not heard about in history text books and are not known as much as men. These women though are bright, important, and without them history wouldn’t have existed. These Mesopotamian women were controlled by their husbands and fathers, but with their knowledge, they made an immense difference to their society.