The role of Mesopotamian women in their society, as in most cultures throughout time, was primarily that of wife, mother and housekeeper. Girls, for example, did not attend the schools run by priests or scribes unless they were royalty. Girls stayed home and learned the household tasks they would perform when they grew up and married.
However, as the polytheistic religion practiced by Mesopotamians included both gods and goddesses, women were also priestesses, some of them not only important, but powerful. A family might sell a daughter to the temple, and they were honored to have a priestess in the family. Families could also sell their daughters into prostitution or slavery. Prostitution, however, was not regarded as vile or degrading at that time. In fact, a form of sacred prostitution in the temples existed side by side with secular prostitution.
Shortly after a girl reached puberty, her father arranged a marriage for her. Marriages were legal contracts between two families and each family had obligations to meet. A bride’s father paid a dowry to the young couple. The groom’s family paid a bride price. While ancient Sumerians and Babylonians could and did fall in love, and romantic love was celebrated in songs, stories and literature, it wasn’t encouraged in real life. The basis for a society is the family unit, and Mesopotamian societies structured the laws to encourage stable families.
Most women, then, were wives and mothers, doing the necessary tasks of women everywhere: taking care of their families, raising children, cleaning, cooking and weaving. Some women, however, also engaged in trade, especially weaving and selling cloth, food production, brewing beer and wine, perfumery and making incense, midwifery and prostitution. Weaving and selling cloth produced much wealth for Mesopotamia and temples employed thousands of women in making cloth.
Mesopotamian women in Sumer, the first Mesopotamian culture, had more rights than they did in the later Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. Sumerian women could own property, run businesses along with their husbands, become priestesses, scribes, physicians and act as judges and witnesses in courts. Archeologists and historians speculate that as Mesopotamian cultures grew in wealth and power, a strong patriarchal structure gave more rights to men than to women. Perhaps the Sumerians gave women more rights because they worshipped goddesses as fervently as they did gods.
For men, divorce was easy. A husband could divorce a wife if she was childless, careless with money or if she belittled him. All he had to say was “You are not my wife.” Women could initiate divorce, but had to prove her husband’s abuse or adultery. Monies paid to each family, in cases of divorce, had to be returned. If Mesopotamian women were caught in adultery, they were killed. If men were caught in adultery, a man might be punished financially but not killed. While women were expected to be monogamous, husbands could visit prostitutes or take concubines.
This article is part of our larger resource on Mesopotamian culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on ancient Mesopotamia.