In his book The Egyptian Family in Ancient Times, Abdel-Aziz Saleh describes the status of women in ancient Egypt by drawing on evidence found in ancient papyri and inscriptions in tombs and temples.
Ancient Egyptian society gave both women and men moderate rights, he says, shown through images of a man fishing with his son and assisted by his wife and daughter, for example. Such images carry a religious and social significance, according to Saleh, and can tell us much about how family life was organised.
One legal document from the third century BCE states that the share of a daughter in an inheritance was one third and that she had the right to inherit from brothers and sisters who had died without leaving children, just like her brothers.
These rights changed slightly according to each period of ancient Egyptian history, though it is difficult to tell because of limited information.
One of the oldest texts that proves that women had the right to own and distribute property is a text written in the form of a will by the mother of Mshn, a high-ranking official serving King Senefro in the middle of the second millennium BCE, that entitled him to 50 shsb of land (about 30 feddans).
Despite the fact that education was mainly for men in ancient Egypt, some women also had their share. Some would learn to read and write at home, and this was apparent in the letters women would sometimes write to each other. One letter written by a woman who lived in the Ramessid period describes the city of Memphis to a friend living in the city of Thebes, for example.
Other women worked as writers or even letter-writers for the queen. During the Ramessid period, women working for the court were involved in educating foreigners, for example. During the last phase of the Old Kingdom, some women worked as judges and others as assistants to male officials.
The Egyptian throne was also inherited by six Egyptian princesses, the most famous of them being Hatshepsut who ruled in the middle of the 18th Dynasty and Cleopatra who was of Greek origin and ruled in the Ptolemaic era.
Professor of Museums and Heritage studies, specifically women's heritage, Nagwa Bakr has been working on the role of women in ancient Egypt and particularly on correcting misconceptions.
“The roles of Egyptian women have been described by colonialist writers in a limited way, focusing on motherhood and beauty. For instance, if they speak about Cleopatra, they only mention how she would care for her looks, as if that was the only role of Egyptian women,” Bakr said.
“However, many historical references show that Egyptian women played many roles.”
During the ancient Egyptian First Dynasty, for example, Egypt was ruled by a queen called Merneith. A painting in the Egyptian Museum calls her “the loved one of Neith”, the goddess of war, indicating a role in warfare.
According to Bakr, there are also signs of gender equality in the sources. “Egyptologists have found pottery with women and men shown as being the same size on it, indicating that they had the same status and rights,” she said. “The ancient Egyptian literature respects women, as most texts talk about them with respect, unlike the Ptolemaic literature that depicts women as second grade,” she added.
Family life in ancient Egypt had ideals that included religious practice and justice in inheritance between the sexes. It was not only men in ancient Egypt who were keen to serve the gods, as women also had their role to play in temple service, Saleh says.
Women were given jobs of great status and could serve to legitimate ruling dynasties. “In the Old Kingdom, there were priestesses and female doctors, and the transition of the throne was not legitimate unless it was through a female,” Bakr said.
“A king of Egypt was not given the throne unless his mother was of royal blood, as the transition was through women.”
The ancient Egyptian kings did not marry off their daughters to foreign princes because they believed that the royal blood was sacred.
Women in ancient Egypt were also allowed to play a political role. “In the Middle Kingdom, there were queens who had prominent political roles. However, it was not until the New Kingdom that the role of women was most apparent because Egypt had passed through a transitional period in which the Hyksos Wars had occurred,” Bakr said.
“The women of Upper Egypt played a big role in these, among them figures like Tetisheri, Eyah Hotb, and Ahmose Nefertari. They represented a model of Upper Egyptian women in terms of being part of the resistance to the invaders.”
The wife of King Akhenaten, Nefertiti, also had a prominent role to play as she believed in the new religion introduced by her husband and supported him in it. His mother Queen Tiye maintained Egypt’s relations with the rulers of other countries while her son was busy with his religious innovations.
Women in ancient Egypt also had many financial rights, being able to inherit their husband’s and parents’ belongings and write contracts without male guardianship, Bakr said.
Parents would distribute their wealth equally among their children, whether males or females, according to the needs of each. Some documents prove that a husband and a wife would share their wealth during the husband’s lifetime and that a wife would be entitled to one third of his wealth after his death, Saleh said.
Daughters were given ample wedding supplies by their fathers, according to the financial status of the family. A form of dowry or “bride’s present” would be paid by the bridegroom either before the marriage or after it to secure the bride’s financial status during the marriage, and this varied according to the social status of the bride, Saleh said.
Before a marriage, a written agreement by the future husband would be sought that included all the belongings that the husband would buy, even down to wigs and skin-moisturising oils. The document would also make provisions for divorce. Women were later denied some of these rights in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, Bakr said, adding that it was not until the Coptic era that they were regained by women.
Women who got divorced were allowed to take back the fortunes they had shared with their ex-husbands and their wedding supplies. The same thing was true of widows. These were given financial compensation and in some cases a third of their ex-husband’s fortune if they had had children together.
Guarantees from the family of the husband would make sure he met his financial obligations. During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, women were also given the right to sign their own wedding contracts and to ask for a divorce, Saleh said.
“There was no such thing as polygamy in ancient Egyptian society, although male members of the ruling family were allowed more than one wife to maintain the royal blood line,” Bakr said.
There are also some literary texts that include tips for men on how to maintain a healthy relationship with their wives. Some of these include the advice that a man should feed his wife well, put clothes on her back, and look after her if she is sick.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly