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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Before Islam:  Egypt

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Framing the Issues

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What Was the Legal and Social Status of Women?

As noted above, gender roles were distinct in ancient Egypt. At the same time, unlike many (ancient) societies, gender played no role in law. Both men and women could own, acquire, and dispose of property, real or personal, in their own names. Women did not need to have a man act for them or represent them in legal transactions. They could make their own contracts, they could bring a court case, and they could serve as witnesses in a court case. Although women only rarely served as part of the "jury" or as witnesses to a contract, this reflects the social fact that women were expected to be at home while it was men who were out in the world and available to serve on a jury or to witness a contract.

Both sons and daughters could, and did, inherit from both parents, and by the Late Period wealthy women would get an "endowment document" from their husband in which the husband guaranteed to support the wife (unless she asked for a divorce) while guaranteeing that their children would be his heirs. Because of gender expectations, a husband was expected to take care of all family business and therefore might deal with (e.g., lease out) property owned by his wife.  But if he sold anything of hers, he had the responsibility to replace it with something of equal value. 

Supporting Links:

Johnson, Janet H. “Women’s Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt.” Fathom Archive. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 11, 2010).

Manning, J.G. "Demotic Egyptian Instruments of Transfer as Evidence for Private Ownership of Real Property.” LexisNexis. (Option to purchase) Link to resourcenew window (accessed October 22, 2010). (Link doesn’t work).

Piccione, Peter. “Excursis III: The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 11, 2010).

Women & Gender in Ancient Egypt: From Prehistory to Late Antiquity. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 11, 2010).

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