Women of Ancient Egypt

With the rise of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, it is abundantly clear to us that women have been and continue to be discriminated against across the world, whether it is in the most modern of societies like the USA or the ones that are not as modern like Saudi Arabia. Feminists say that women have been historically marginalised and their talents underestimated. They believe that societal structures and social machinery work in a way to favour men, disregarding women’s capabilities, preferences, freedoms or requirements. Today, the fight for equal opportunities and equal pay are not just limited to the efforts of non-males. Men who realise that there exists a disparity that needs to be rectified have started joining in. But have women always been subjected to the kind of treatment that is meted out to them today?

There is a common notion that ancient civilisations were in fact extremely backward when it comes to their social lives and societies. For instance, Athenian democracy allowed only adult males of the “polis” to run it. Non-males were completely barred from activities like administration, security and so on. In fact, women were not permitted to own property. They were often excluded from getting a part of the inheritance as well. Females were not citizens of the polis.

The scene in ancient Egypt was very different. Surprisingly, they were much better off than the Greeks and perhaps, some of the modern societies too. Now, don’t get me wrong; society was primarily patriarchal. But this did not, in any way, imply that women could not hold high positions in religious institutions, the administration and so on. They did own property and had a right to inheritance. Their words had equal weight as that of men in court. Besides, lineage was traced back through the lines of both parents. This kind of equality of treatment is possibly because of their mythology.

Egyptian mythology revolves around a fantastic brother-sister duo married to each other - Isis, the goddess of magic, and Osiris, the god of the afterlife. Astonishingly, Isis is the dominant partner in this relationship. She is often depicted as being extremely powerful and possessed of great knowledge. In fact, she was even believed to have the power to resurrect dead humans. In one of the legends, she brings Osiris back to life after his death, a feat that remains unimaginable for the rest of the deities, men and women alike. This was reflected in the social lives of the Egyptians too as women were often depicted as holding their husband’s hands and sometimes even protecting them. Besides this godly pair, there were several other deities; and male and female gods were equally abundant and powerful. However, some rather important positions were occupied by goddesses alone, unlike most other religions or mythologies. For example, the four gods depicted on the four corners of a tomb, symbolising the fact that they were entrusted with the job of guarding the tomb, are all female. The domain of healing also comes under a goddess, Sekhmet. Besides, the patron deity of cats, an animal sacred to the Egyptians, was female too - Bastet. And the feminine influence was not just limited to the realm of the gods: it penetrated the domain of humans too.

While most of the high positions of administration were generally reserved for men, it is not unusual to find several exceptions to the rule in the case of Egypt. The women of this ancient society were certainly not exclusively stay-at-home mothers; they frequently engaged in several professions, some of which would have proven to be rather unorthodox in patriarchal societies - weavers, farmers, etc. The vizier was the highest state official after the Pharaoh. Nebet, a woman of great talent and importance took the office as early as Sixth Dynasty Egypt. She would inspire several other women to do the same. The first of the female rulers of ancient Egypt, Merneith’s reign dates back to the first dynasty. The highest positions in religious institutions were not exclusive to men, either, and thus, were often occupied by women, who did not necessarily have to be from a noble background either. Motherhood was very sacred to this ancient civilisation. Very often, mothers were honoured more than fathers and this found manifestation in their literature, scriptures and so on.

The highest position that an ancient Egyptian could possibly hold was the position of a pharaoh. Egyptians preferred to be ruled by a woman of the royal bloodline rather than a man who wasn’t blue-blooded. Besides, whenever there was a crisis involving succession, no one really objected to giving the throne to a woman. At least fifteen great queens have ruled ancient Egypt and their stories are just as sparkling with tales of success as their male counterparts. Unfortunately our preference for a male-dominated history meant that their stories were easily forgotten or grossly misinterpreted or distorted by later civilisations.

One of the most popular of these queens was Hatshepsut or Matcaray. After the death of her husband, she took over the affairs of the palace as the heir to the throne was far too young to take on royal responsibilities. Very soon, she took up the royal title of the pharaoh. Eventually, her daughter, Neferure assumed roles beyond that of a conventional princess, almost that of a queen. Hatshepshut happens to have been a very controversial figure in the history of Egypt because she found it necessary to wear a fake beard to make herself look more like a pharaoh and legitimise her authority. In fact, her statues that have survived the millenia distinctly show that her beard was fake. The fact that she was a woman was no secret. Many Egyptologists today suspect that several other pharaohs might have been female too. The 20 years of Hatshepsut’s reign was full of remarkable accomplishments - her temple at Luxor, Egypt’s tallest standing obelisk at the temple complex of Karnak, new trade contracts with Punt and military conquests that she herself headed, among others. Egyptologists believed that most stories about her, that were obtained from the scriptures on the temple walls, were exaggerations of what she did for her country for the longest time. However, we know today that she did indeed achieve everything that has found a place on those walls because of the various artifacts like cups of raisin from Punt and so on that have been found. Her existence was, however, unknown for a very long time. This is probably because the later pharaohs were ashamed of the fact that a woman ruled as the pharaoh and they believed that this affected ‘Ma’at’- balance. Scriptures were destroyed, temples taken down, obelisks demolished to remove all signs of her existence. Hatshepsut was however, never meant to be completely forgotten or to be the last female pharaoh to lead Egypt. She would go on to inspire several other female leaders of Egypt.

Arsinoë, the second pharaoh of the last dynasty is much less celebrated and yet, just as charismatic as Hatshepsut herself. After the death of her first husband, she fled Greece to return to Egypt where she persuaded her younger brother to marry her. This would eventually pave her way to become the pharaoh of not just Egypt, but also the Greek Mediterranean. Arsinoë would go on to bring prosperity to Egypt like no other. She established trade contracts with distant civilisations like India and the Far East. Under Arsinoë, coins started being used and slowly began to replace the barter system. Being the intelligent woman that she was, she knew that she could use coins to establish her authority. Her face appeared on these coins, making it abundantly clear to all who was in power. Arsinoë was extremely proud of the feminine history of Egypt. In one of her temples, she is shown wearing a grand crown which is today the object of a lot of research. Her crown had several parts symbolising various aspects of Egypt. The red crown represented Upper Egypt and the fact that she ruled from the new capital of Alexandria. Two tall feathers and a bull horn represented Neferari, the wife of pharaoh Ramses II, who was known for her skills in diplomacy. Twisted ram horns represented Amun-Ra who also happened to be the favourite god of Hatshepsut. Finally the sun disc, often associated with the Old Kingdom and Hetepheres, the mother of Pharaoh Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid of Giza, completed her crown.

The most famous of all the pharaohs is probably Cleopatra. However, she is famous for all the wrong reasons - reasons that might as well be made up and undermine her talents. Cleopatra has absolutely no comparison. She is the first of the Ptolemaic dynasty (they are of Macedonian-Greek descent and became the ruling family after Alexander the Great’s successful conquest of Egypt in 332 BC) to learn the Egyptian tongue. She is known to be multilingual, having command over at least 9 languages. This greatly helped her in her administrative role. Remains of written declarations with her signature show that she was a very able and respected administrator. Cleopatra was extremely educated in chemistry, astronomy, literature and so on. She even owned a perfume factory and is frequently associated with several advancements in the alchemy of the time. Popular media today depicts her as a woman of unparalleled beauty who seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony with her beauty and charm, leading to the notion that she was a characterless seductress. However, objections to her ‘character’ in ancient times comes primarily from Roman writers, who often objected to her reign solely because she was a woman. They claimed that she was responsible for several conflicts because of her ways. Sadly, they failed to realise that both Mark Antony and Julius Caesar had equal responsibility as Cleopatra in their respective relationships. People often question Cleopatra’s character and, yet, fail to do the same for Julius Caesar, who was married when he started his affair with Cleopatra and at one point, even refused to claim his son with the queen as his own. In fact, today most egyptologists believe that she was not even conventionally beautiful as Hollywood movies often portray her. She, just like most other members of the royal family, was a product of incest, and the lack of genetic diversity would have, without a doubt, left its marks in the form of deformed bodily features.

Cleopatra was the last of the great pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Her reign ended with her suicide and it put an end to over 3000 years of glory. However, as many might think, Egypt did not die because of Cleopatra’s inadequacy in the position of power, but rather due to the fact that Rome was not ready to see a woman rule, at least not as well as the male pharaohs and certainly not better. What would have happened had the Roman belief of female inferiority not interfered with this great civilisation is something that we probably will never get to know. Some might say that Egypt would have eventually made its way to a truly egalitarian society. However, we cannot be so sure, especially since examples like the Vedic ages of India exist in which a society where women were considered equal to men gradually becomes not only patriarchal but also cruelly oppressive towards women over time. What is undeniable is that ancient Egypt was certainly far ahead of its time and remains one of the most feminist civilisations to have ever existed.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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