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

Before Islam:  Mesopotamia

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Framing the Issues

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What Was the Legal and Social Status of Women?

As mentioned above, gender roles in ancient Mesopotamia were clearly defined. In general, men worked outside the home while women stayed at home raising their children and taking care of the household. There were exceptions to the norm; for instance, we know of female weavers and female “bartenders” who not only sold beer, but also offered small loans. Women could also be priestesses—there were many different kinds of priestesses with varying responsibilities and privileges. Some were not allowed to marry; some were from elite families and owned large properties (although these priestesses lived together in a special institution which we roughly translate as ‘cloister’). In all of these cases, however, women were still allotted less freedom than men. Female weavers received less pay (in grain rations) than their male counterparts. The choices of profession were limited for women. And priestesses were most often dedicated by their families to a temple or “cloister,” thus it was not necessarily a girl’s choice to be a priestess (of course, boys may not have had a choice of profession either).

Generally, as described above, a woman’s position in society was determined by either the status of her father or her husband. Daughters of or women married to men of high status were accorded high status themselves. Like some priestesses, elite women were allowed to own and sell property.

Women were also treated differently from men in the legal system. Women were not allowed to act as witnesses in law cases. In terms of actual laws, the punishments for various crimes, including adultery, were generally much harsher for women than for men; it was much more difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce than for a man; and while women technically were able to inherit property (at least at certain times and places in Mesopotamian history), special interventions had to be undertaken for daughters to inherit instead of sons, making this more of an exception rather than the rule. It is important, however, to keep in mind that while the laws outlined in the law codes were normative, they were not necessarily followed to the letter in everyday practice.

Supporting Links:

Stol, M. “Women in Mesopotamia.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Volume 38, Number 2, 1995. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

Troy, Beth. “Legally Bound: A Study of Women’s Legal Status in the Ancient Near East.” A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Miami University, 2004. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 26, 2009).

Write, Rita P. “Technology, Gender, and Class: Worlds of Difference in Ur III Mesopotamia.” Gender and Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

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