Throughout most of history women generally have had fewer legal rights and career opportunities than men. Wifehood and motherhood were regarded as women’s most significant job. Money was used to buy and sell women like slaves. And men were given the upper hand in written law. Egyptian society and Hammurabi’s code have granted them fewer rights than their male counter parts. Starting way back in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian society women were view and treated inferior to men. This was shown in the harshness of Hammurabi’s code. It was written with little consideration to the women in society.
It was established in 1686 BCE to bring order, retribution, and “justice” to the Babylonian society. There are 282 laws that were supposed to protect the poor from the wealthy; the weak from the strong, and other inequalities. However, some of the laws enacted by Hammurabi showed strong gender bias. They were considered to be family laws, but in many considerations were laws to control women. Some of the laws in the code gave women protection from patriarchal rule, such as laws placing restrictions on the use of women’s dowries, the bride prices paid for women, and laws involving divorce can happen.
These laws may have been seen by lawmakers as protection but they actually show the state’s recognition that women needed some legal protections from male authority. In many cases, women were treated as children and not given equal treatment under the law. Even in these laws of protection, women are referred to as lesser beings. For instance, often women are written down as chattels, which are actually just a little more than slaves. Hammurabi also paid special attention to women being married.
He made laws that clearly showed women were lesser beings than their husbands. He gave the husbands all the control in the relationship. Marriage was done through the purchase of a bride with a bride’s price and a dowry. This law is clearly insinuating that women are merchandise to be bought and sold from father to husband. A woman was only a wife through a special marriage contract. According to Hammurabi’s code, special provisions and conditions could be put into the contract that held strict limitations on women.
For instance, not only was the wife expected to be a maid-servant to her husband, but if her husband wishes he could force her to serve her mother-in-law, or even his first wife this again shows the idea that a woman is had to be submissive to her husband. Another way in which women are hindered is financially. Although when a man marries a woman he inherits her debts and becomes responsible for them, he can have it inserted into the contract that he may offer her as a maid-servant to those she is indebted, to pay back her debts.
This shows that the contract and money are the driving forces within the relationship. There were laws that governed a wife’s behavior as well, a disgusting nod that men were better than her wife. Women deemed bad wives would suffer severe consequences. If a woman was a bad wife, a very subjective way of looking at women, her husband could have her sent away while keeping her children and her money/property. Another option for bad wives would be for their husbands to make them slaves in their own households. At this point, the man only needs to feed and clothe her.
This was not the same when a man treated a woman badly. A woman was allowed to file suit if her husband treated her cruelly or neglected her; however, she could only get a judicial separation there was no punishment for his behavior towards her, like there was for women when men. Other laws did not just punish women, but instead put them in inferior positions of obedience and second-class citizenship to men. For instance, if a woman could not bear her husband any children, she was expected to provide him with a maid who could provide the husband with children.
The maid was not a wife, and any children she gave birth to were immediately turned over to the husband and his wife. This maid was then at the hands of the wife and could be degraded to slavery. The maid had no say in anything. She had carried a human being inside her for 9 months and then could have no more contact with her rightful child. When the maid was bought so were her childbearing duties, and her right to have a life outside the contract. Although monogamy was the believed rule, men often did not maintain their faithfulness to their wives. It was common for a free man to have sexual relations with his slaves with no punishment.
As far as adultery was concerned (in which both parties were executed), it was only considered adultery when a man had sexual relations with a woman who did not belong to him or was not in contract with him. So basically, a man couldn’t sleep with others’ wives, slaves, or single women, but free to exploit any women under his service. He could contract many slaves just to use for his own gain, as long as he had the money to back it up. Not only did the written laws give power of husbands over their wives, but fathers as well. In fact, a woman never really left the control of her father.
She was always known as the daughter of her father, never her own self. So in effect, not only was a woman not given her own identity, but was limited to being the daughter of another man. A father had strict control over his daughters, and there were serious punishments for disobedient children left to the discretion of the men of the family. A father could choose his daughter’s future giving her little to no say whatsoever. Sometimes a father could choose for his daughter to live a life of celibacy as a Vestal Virgin. A Vestal Virgin was free to marry but she could never bear children.
Also, the power to sell his daughter off for marriage was delegated to the father as well. A father could also make other decisions for his daughter such as offer her services to particular gods, vestals, and others. He could basically sell her to the highest bidder for his own gain. As you can see, the Hammurabi law system left little room for women’s rights. Hammurabi’s Code has stood as the symbol for written law for thousands of years. It appears obvious Hammurabi’s legal system wasn’t used to promote family law; but rather to have written down laws that could be used to dictate the lives of its female citizens.
One thing is for certain the early Egyptian and Mesopotamian society used strict laws and legislation to control the lives of women and degrade them to lower statuses than men. It allowed the use of money and contracts to have power of women and force them to do as a man pleases. Both fathers and husbands had reining control over women, they could never be individuals. Hammurabi’s code created an unjust and unmoral society that was just the beginning to the degradation of women and their rights.