- There is documentary, visual, and archaeological evidence for the role women played in Mesopotamian society through the ages. In many early textual sources, however, the gender of persons mentioned is not always clear. It appears that in the Uruk period there was, at least ritually, a complementarity between male and female; the highest male office (EN) had a female equivalent (NIN), and both are depicted as officiating side by side at important functions. During the Early Dynastic period, women could also occupy highly prestigious offices, as the grave goods in the “Royal Tombs” at Ur and inscribed votive gifts demonstrate. According to the Sumerian King List, there was even a female ruler of Kish. It seems, though, that female status at high levels diminished progressively after the Early Dynastic period. There were some remnants of influential positions, such as that of the entupriestessof the moon god at Ur, which was often held by daughters of the ruling king. Princesses and queens owed their social rank to their relationship with the king and especially some queens could at times hold the balance of power after their husband’s death (see SEMIRAMIS). Royal daughters, on the other hand, could be married off to secure political alliances and to provide an informal intelligence system. Written documents also shed some light on the legal position of women in Mesopotamia. They could hold and acquire property, slaves, and other valuables; invest their dowries as appropriate; engage in business ventures of various kinds; and begin litigation. They were not, however, able to be witnesses in legal disputes. Of particular interest are the documents that belonged to the naditu women at Sippar, who lived in seclusion and engaged in business activities while performing various cultic duties at the temple. Marriageswere generally monogamous and arranged by parents; girls married earlier than men and, when widowed, could marry again. Since Mesopotamian society was patriarchal, women could instigate divorce only in cases of gross neglect and cruelty, and male adultery was not a justifiable reason. Women could be divorced on grounds of barrenness, refusal to perform marital duties, and becoming “hateful” to their husbands. This was less easy if they had borne children. Female adultery was punished with great severity, according to the Code of Ur-Nammu, with the death penalty (while the male lover was spared). In Hammurabi’s law code, the accused adulterous couple was bound together and thrown in the river; if the river “accepted” them and they drowned, it was both proof of guilt and punishment.Most legal documents referring to women (in marriage contracts, divorce settlements, inheritance suits, or business affairs) concern women of the affluent groups of society. Some high-status women, such as the privileged cloistered naditu women, even employed their own female secretaries. These texts make it clear that such women could dispose over considerable wealth, deriving from their dowries, their husband’s gifts, or their own enterprise at their own discretion. While the main contribution of all women was to bear and raise children, they also formed part of the workforce in Mesopotamia. The names of thousands of “ordinary” women are known from the administrative texts of large institutions, such as temples and palaces where they were employed in a great variety of occupations. They performed domestic work, such as the endless grinding of grain at millstones; backbreaking towing of barges along canals; reed cutting and other heavy agricultural work; domestic chores; and, importantly, in the textile workshops. They also performed services in the temple, ranging from administrative duties to praying, dancing, or singing. Altogether, female workers (and their children) were an integral and important part of Mesopotamia’s urban society. This is also documented by the numerous professional titles preserved in the lexical lists. Women laborers were paid half the rations of men, generally 30 liters per month (six days were deducted from their productivity to take account of menstruation).Women could also engage in business. Most commonly they were tavern keepers, where they sold different varieties of beer, lent small sums of silver, and provided some form of entertainment. They were often partners in business with their husbands; in Old Assyrian As sur, they oversaw the trade activities at home while their menfolk were abroad, and sometimes they produced some of the merchandise themselves (e.g., textiles) for a share of the profits. Similar practices are also known from the Old and Neo-Babylonian periods. Women’s movements and opportunities appear to have been more restricted in Assyria, where they were also under the obligation to wear a veil in public.In Mesopotamian literature, women were active both as authors (see ENHEDUANNA), composing hymns, prayers, and love songs (as during the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur), and as performers in cultic or courtly settings. The most prominent female personage in literary texts is the goddess Inanna-Ishtar whose ambition, vitality, and independence is matched by charm, sex appeal, and ingenuity. In Sumerian love songs, she embodies the much admired libidinous powers of female sexuality, while some later Babylonian texts place more emphasis on the destructive aspects of her personality. Fear of seductive women is also much in evidence in the omenliterature, especially in antiwitchcraft incantations.See also FAMILY.
Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. EdwART. 2012.