Women’s Roles in Ancient Mesopotamia
Gender roles are public displays of one’s gender identification. They are a set of expressions, behaviors, and attitudes that show one’s either masculinity or femininity. Men and women have always had different societal roles throughout history, so looking at the ancient Mesopotamians, their culture is no different. Some of the women’s specific roles were getting married, being a household wife, and acting as part of the society’s religious services. But, “central to the life of every married woman, […] was the bearing and raising of children,” which was essential for life to continue (McIntosh 176). Depending on the class of the woman, she would have different responsibilities within society and her marriage. Women who were wives of important businessmen may have had responsibilities like supervising workers, informing their husbands of situations, handling finances, and trying to raise capital (McIntosh 175).
During this time period of ancient Mesopotamia, gender roles were very specific because it was tradition and things had never been done differently and worked out. From a young age, “girls acquired the skills of running a household from their mothers,” knowing that one day they would be married and would need to know how to keep a home (Mendoza 136). Throughout ancient Mesopotamia, women’s roles were kept similar because it was simple and known to work. Although women were allowed to be a part of their husband’s business, if he had one, women worked mostly behind the scenes, never meeting with other men outside of the actual company. These common roles kept all the women as one unit, always behind the men.
From a physical appearance point of view, the women have always had more choice in their clothing and accessories. Similar to other cultures, the ancient Mesopotamians believed that “ ‘male’ was associated with the right, and ‘female’ with the left side,” which was always the one difference between male and female clothing (Stol 124). In reality, there were many garments only worn by women, since they have more choice in clothing. As for accessories, golden earrings, silver arm and feet rings, nose rings, beautiful necklaces, and makeup were all a part of a woman’s ensemble (Stol 124). Depending on the wealth class, the woman could wear all of these accessories, some of them, or none at all.
Marriage is a formal union between a man and a woman that is recognized by the law. Back in ancient Mesopotamia, this was a simple and standard institution between men and women. There are records of written contracts for when “financial interests were involved,” but normal marriage agreements were oral (Stol 125). Historians have constantly discussed the legal character of marriage, since the parents of the bride would essentially sell her to the family of the groom. For his entire life, “Paul Koschaker defended it to be basically a sale, […] comparing the delivery of the woman with that of immovables” (Stol 126). This idea of marriage being a sale, has been discussed and debated by historians, but no conclusion has ever been stated. The next common expression was the “price of a virgin,” which meant the “price for a woman” or the money the bride’s parents had to pay for her to marry the groom (Stol 127). The perspective of marriage is a topic that may never completely be settled because marriage is so different today than it was in ancient Mesopotamia.
Women’s roles in religion were very defined and meaningful in ancient Mesopotamia. During the prayers the “woman introduces [a] man to his god” which is formally called intercession (Stol 139). She is also expected to pray at home “for her family to the gods” (Stol 139). This shows a woman’s leadership role in religion, which was a huge aspect in ancient Mesopotamia.
The ancient Mesopotamians believed that women were extremely important, and gave them meaningful roles in society. I, being a female, appreciate the respect given to women in ancient Mesopotamia. From that period, women’s rights and places in society have only expanded. I enjoyed reading about women’s lives and their power in household situations. It is quite comforting to see how many changes have taken place, because it shows that more can and definitely will come.
This is a “portrait of a young girl posing as a poet” (DiCaprio ii). It is a wall painting from Pompeii and is in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. Since this is a picture of a woman writing, it shows her education and how women have earned more and more respect throughout history.
DiCaprio, Lisa, and Merry E. Wiesner. "The Ancient Mediterranean and Western Asia." Lives and Voices: Sources in European Women's History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. N. pag. Print.
McIntosh, Jane R. "Women in Mesopotamia." World History Encyclopedia. Gale Virtual Reference Library, 2011. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/retrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=RELEVANCE&inPS=true&prodId=GVRL&userGroupName=munc80314&tabID=T003&searchId=R1&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&contentSegment=&searchType=BasicSearchForm¤tPosition=7&contentSet=GALE%7CCX2458800368&&docId=GALE|CX2458800368&docType=GALE>.
Mendoza, Abraham O. "Concepts of Gender, Gender Distinctions, and Roles in the Ancient Near East." World History Encyclopedia. Gale Virtual Reference Library, 2011. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/retrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=RELEVANCE&inPS=true&prodId=GVRL&userGroupName=munc80314&tabID=T003&searchId=R2&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&contentSegment=&searchType=BasicSearchForm¤tPosition=8&contentSet=GALE%7CCX2458800850&&docId=GALE|CX2458800850&docType=GALE>.
Stol, M. "Women in Mesopotamia." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 2nd ser. 38 (1995): 123-44. BRILL. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/3632512.pdf?acceptTC=true>.