Advanced civilisations have long been synonymous with the country of Egypt. Characterised by world-famous pharaohs, the Pyramids, rich culture of music and arts, ahead-of-time science and medicine and the surreal concepts of death and immortality, ancient Egypt is considered to be one of the greatest models of development and civilisation this world has had to offer. Ma’at, the core value of the Egyptian civilisation introduced the idea of harmony and balance in every facet of one’s life. This value, as propagated by the Pharaohs of Egypt, as part of their mediation between Gods and human beings, took the form of astounding symmetry in Egypt’s architecture, artworks, practices of religion and framework of society. As a result, unlike the present-day nations, women of ancient Egypt held an equal status to men, at least to a large extent.
It’s not that women had the same occupations as men; the patriarchal setup of Egypt was similar to other civilisations of Rome and Greece in that aspect, however within that system, women held a respectable position and enjoyed crucial rights and privileges which put them in a far better position when compared to women of other nations. Much of the reason why women in Egypt were mostly considered equal to men can be credited to the popular mythical figures which emerged during those times.
The fantasy tale of siblings Osiris and Iris sparked what is known as the divine feminine, as this duo is believed to have taught humans all about civilisation. After a jealous brother kills Osiris, it is Iris who gives birth to his child who grows up to restore balance once again along with his sister. It’s believed that the goddess Neith created this world and that the goddess Bastet provided security and peace to women. Even in legends where males are the central characters, there are elements involving both male and female attributes, once again aligning with the principle of Ma’at.
Few women in Egypt could hold powerful positions like men. The most influential title given to any woman was that of the “God’s wife”, which gave the woman the honour to assist the high priests in religious ceremonies. In between the period of transition from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt to the New Kingdom of Egypt, the power of the title rose exponentially, until it held the same prestige as the King’s title. Hatshepsut, Egypt’s second female ruler and a God’s wife, was as described by American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, “the first great woman in history”. In her reign of 22 years, she introduced some monumental changes in trade and infrastructure which shaped Egypt into an advanced nation and many of her projects are still standing to this day.
Perhaps the most famous Egyptian ruler, Cleopatra VII, left an indelible impact on the history of women. Over the centuries, she has garnered immense popularity and adoration for her power and way of rule. A lot of her success is credited to her short-lived yet successful relations with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, however, what’s lost in history, not surprisingly, is her exceedingly immense wit and wisdom which contributed to her success as a ruler. Nefertiti is yet another name which comes to mind when one thinks of Egypt’s most powerful leaders (and not female leaders). Along with her husband Akhenaten, she brought about a huge religious revolution, known as monotheism i.e., the belief in only one god.
However, it wasn’t just the elite women who were models of female power and superiority in ancient Egypt; common womenfolk had a fairly high degree of freedom despite not having the same occupations as men. Popular folk art and paintings depict both women and men working in the fields, harvesting crops and engaging in other physical labour.
Within their popular jobs of sewing, cooking and housekeeping, women enjoyed the liberties of their choice of marriage, divorce, inheritance and entering into legal contracts. A woman could sue, buy and sell property, execute wills in her name and in the event of her husband’s death, would be given full control of his property and other assets. These privileges, though fundamental and hence seemingly very basic in nature, are yet to be meted out to many modern-day women.
When it came to education, many barriers which exist today didn’t exist back then in Egypt. The right to education was extended to all women and hence women could complete their education in establishments and learn science, geometry and hieroglyphics. Science and medicine were the arenas in which fantastic advancements were made. One of the most noteworthy doctors was Merit Ptah, also known by the pseudonym “the boss doctor” who contributed significantly to the field of pharmaceuticals. Another contributory was a doctor named Cleopatra (not the queen Cleopatra), whose writings on female well-being and pregnancy were sought even after 1,000 years.
Thus, the idea that women of ancient times were greatly disadvantaged and ruthless victims of patriarchy, which they indeed were in many parts of the world, has been disproved by the ancient system of Egypt to some text and could be called largely a Western concept. This is not to say that patriarchy didn’t exist in this part of the world; it did in the way the throne was never awarded to a woman by the value she brought but only by her relations to the King; however, the fact that rights like birth control and abortions were freely accessible to women in Egypt paints our modern world in bleak colours.
It’s only from the beginning of a new era of Christianity in the 4th century CE when women’s position of equal respect and opportunities took a backseat. Cleopatra became the last ruler of Egypt before it was seized by Rome, after which the Arab Invasion took place and hence ended the freedom which women of ancient Egypt so enjoyed for many, many years.