Women Rights and Status in Ancient Egypt

January 4, 2023
Alexandra Kinias


For thousands of years, the warm golden rays of the sun shined over the glorious Egyptian civilization that flourished on the banks of the river Nile. The Egyptians excelled in medicine, astronomy, architecture, agriculture and sciences, but what made their civilization phenomenal was that women were respected and cherished. Ancient Egyptian women enjoyed more rights and better status than their peers in the neighboring lands, and they enjoyed more rights than their contemporary daughters. Indeed, the society had its flaws, but there was no gender discrimination, but a class discrimination. It’s not a coincidence that the ancient Egyptian civilization thrived because of its women’s status; after all, no society has sustained prosperity without giving its women their rights and freedom.


It was not uncommon for sailors gliding down the crystal blue waters of the Nile in their sail boats to see the Egyptian women working in the fields, washing clothes, bathing or strolling with their friends at sunsets after a long working day to enjoy the summer breeze, adorned with their accessories. Women had no restrictions on their freedoms. But it was not only the social aspect of their lives that women enjoyed. Whatever existed between heavens and earth was equally distributed and enjoyed by both men and women.


The ancient Egyptians left adequate court documents and legal correspondence that showed how men and women within each social class stood as equals in the eyes of the law. Women could own and sell property and slaves, borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear in court as a witness, serve on juries, testify in trials, inherit equal shares from their deceased parents as their male siblings, and disinherit their ungrateful children.


Egyptians cherished their women and their children. The family was a source of their happiness. However, women were free from the dominance of their fathers and brothers before marriage and their husbands’ after. They were not forced into a marriage.  Once married, women maintained their independence.  A husband’s role was never to become a woman’s legal guardian, as women kept their financial independence. The husband had the authority to manage his wife’s assets, if she agreed, but it was known that it belonged to her.


If the marriage failed, a woman had the freedom to divorce and terminate the marriage at her will. When the divorce was finalized, her property returned back to her and she collected her share of the community property, or what is known today as a divorce settlement. Once divorced, a woman had the freedom to return to her father’s house or to live by herself if she chose to.  Being divorced was not a stigma and it was not uncommon for a divorced woman to remarry. Premarital sex was accepted, but once married, couples were expected to be faithful to each other. And other than the kings who had several wives, polygamy was not allowed.


Ancient Egyptian women were active and held prominent roles and important jobs. Lady Nebet was appointed as Vizier – the right hand ‘person’ of the pharaoh.  Throughout Egyptian history,  Queen Merytneith, Nitocris, Sobeknofru, Hatchepsut, Twosret ruled as Pharaohs. The circumstances of their ruling were uncommon, but none-the-less, no documents ever emerged that these queens were opposed by their subjects because of their gender. Queen Nefirtiti was  an influential wife and co-regent of her husband King Akhenaton. It was not unusual for a wife to represent her husband if he was away and take charge of his business until he returned. Unemployed women of high social class were encouraged to take religious positions in the temples as priestess for certain god or goddess.


Like most ancient societies, illiteracy rate was high in ancient Egypt, but the available learning opportunities was equally divided between males and females. After all, the ancient Egyptians had the goddess Seshat as the ‘female scribe’ and she was not the only goddess. Out of the major thirty deities the ancient Egyptians worshiped, twelve were goddesses.


Seven thousand years later, women in Egypt are facing a lot of challenges.  Today they are still struggling with issues that were granted to their ancient mothers, but there is no doubt that the sun will shine again on the women of Egypt. They just have to work hard to recover their lost rights.


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