Civilization, Women In Patriarchal Societies

5 years ago

Most agricultural civilizations downgraded the status and potential of women, at least according to modern Western standards and to the implicit standards of hunting-and-gathering societies. Agricultural civilizations were characteristically patriarchal; that is, they were run by men and based on the assumption that men directed political, economic, and cultural life. Furthermore, as agricultural civilizations developed over time and became more prosperous and more elaborately organized, the status of women deteriorated from its initial level. Individual families were normally set up on a patriarchal basis, with the husband and father determining fundamental conditions and making the key decisions, and with humble obedience owed to this male authority. Patriarchal family structure rested on men's control of most or all property, starting with land itself; marriage was based on property relationships and it was assumed that marriage, and therefore subordination to men, was the normal condition for the vast majority of women. A revealing symptom of patriarchal families was the fact that, after marrying, a woman usually moved to the orbit (and often the residence) of her husband's family.

Characteristic patriarchal conditions developed in Mesopotamian civilization. Marriages were arranged for women by their parents, with a formal contract being drawn up. The husband served as authority over his wife and children just as he did over his slaves. Early Sumerians may have given women greater latitude than came to be the case later on. Their religion attributed considerable power to female sexuality and their early law gave women important rights, so that they could not be treated as outright property. Still, even in Sumerian law the adultery of a wife was punishable by death, while a husband's adultery was treated far more lightly - a double standard characteristic of patriarchalism. Mesopotamian societies after Sumerian times began to emphasize the importance of a woman's virginity on marriage and imposed the veil on respectable women when in public to emphasize their modesty. These changes showed a progressive cramping of women's social position and daily freedoms. At all points, a good portion of Mesopotamian law (such as the Hammurabic code) was given over to prescriptions for women, assuring certain basic protections but clearly emphasizing limits and inferiority.

Patriarchal conditions also could vary from one agricultural civilization to another. Egyptian civilization gave women, at least in the upper classes, more credit and witnessed a number of powerful queens. The beautiful Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaton, seemed to have been influential in the religious disputes in this reign. Some agricultural societies gave women a certain importance by tracing descendants from mothers rather than fathers. This was true, for example, of Jewish law. But even these matrilineal societies held women to be inferior to men; for example, Jewish law insisted that men and women worship separately. So while variety is truly important, it usually operated within a framework of basic patriarchalism. It was around 2000 B.C. that an Egyptian writer, Ptah Hotep, put patriarchal beliefs as clearly as anyone in the early civilizations: "If you are a man of note, found for yourself a household, and love your wife at home, as it beseems. Fill her belly, clothe her back. . . . But hold her back from getting the mastery. Remember that her eye is her stormwind, and her vulva and mouth are her strength."

Why was patriarchalism so pervasive? As agriculture improved using better techniques, women's labor, though still absolutely vital, became less important than it had been in hunting-and-gathering or early agricultural societies. This was particularly true in the upper classes and in cities where men frequently took over the most productive work, craft production, or political leadership, for example. The inferior position of women in the upper classes was usually more marked than in peasant villages where women's labor remained essential. More generally, agricultural societies were based on concepts of property, beginning with the ways land was organized. Early law codes were based on property relationships. It seemed essential in these circumstances for a man to be sure who his heirs were - that is, to try to make sure that he monopolized the sexual activities of his wife or wives. This situation helps account for the strong legal emphasis placed on women's sexual fidelity and the tendency to treat women themselves as part of a man's property. Within this framework, in turn, it became possible to think of women as inferior and partly ornamental, so that when groups achieved a certain prosperity they often tried to demonstrate this by further reducing the status of women. This was a very clear pattern in Chinese civilization and may have operated also in India and, later, in western Europe. Patriarchalism, in sum, responded to economic and property conditions in agricultural civilizations and might deepen over time.

Patriarchalism raises important questions about women themselves. Many women internalized the culture of patriarchalism, holding that it was their job to obey and to serve men and accepting arguments that their aptitudes were inferior to those of men. But patriarchalism did not preclude some important options for women. In many societies a minority of women could gain some relief through religious functions, which could provide a chance to operate independent of family structures. Patriarchal laws defined some rights for women even within marriage, protecting them in theory from the worst abuses. Sumerian law, for example, gave women as well as men the right to divorce on certain conditions when their spouse had not lived up to obligations. Women could also wield informal power in patriarchal societies by the emotional hold they gained over husbands or sons; this was behind the scenes and indirect, but a forceful woman might use these means to figure prominently in a society's history. Women also could form networks, if only within a large household. Older women, who commanded the obedience of many daughters-in-law as well as unmarried daughters, could powerfully shape the activities of the family.

The fact remains that patriarchalism was a commanding theme in most agricultural civilizations, from the early centuries onward. Enforcing patriarchalism, through law and culture, provided one means by which these societies regulated their members and tried to achieve order. While women were not reduced to literal servitude by most patriarchal systems, they might have come close. Their options were severely constrained. Girls were raised to assume patriarchal conditions, and boys were raised with full consciousness of their distinctiveness. In many agricultural civilizations patriarchalism dictated that boys, because of their importance in carrying on the family name and the chief economic activities, were more likely to survive. When population excess threatened a family or a community, patriarchal assumptions dictated that female infants should be killed as a means of population control.


The Issue Of Heritage

The centuries in which early civilizations took hold and spread in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then in surrounding regions, provide a fascinating insight into the ways civilization took shape, the reasons it developed, and the mixtures of advantages and disadvantages it involved. The period of early civilization, stretching over more than 2000 years, also allows a clear understanding of the mixtures of diversity and contact that would long shape history in the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern Europe. Separate centers arose, particularly along the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile, that had relatively little interaction and differed in numerous ways.

Civilization, though it grouped unprecedented numbers of people in common cultures and common political structures, was also a separating phenomenon because of its diverse points of origin. Because of the way in which two distinct civilizations began in the Middle East and North Africa, supplemented by successive invasions and the formation of smaller regional cultures, the area would be permanently marked as a complex, vibrant, but often disputed and disputatious part of the world.

As a new set of civilizations began to emerge to replace the societies born of the river-valley achievements, it is important to ask more specifically what traces of the river-valley civilizations would survive. Diversity in the region is one important trace, as is the persistence of specific developments such as the Jewish religion. So too, at another level, were the monumental achievements of the early civilizations, notably of course the great Egyptian structures.

Beyond specifics, however, there were two levels of heritage from the river-valley civilizations, one vital and precisely measurable, the other vital but harder to assess.


The basic apparatus of civilization never had to be reinvented in the Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean regions, or in those areas that received civilization from these regions. This apparatus includes the idea of writing, calendars, basic mathematical and scientific discoveries, and improved technologies, such as irrigation, iron use, more productive grain seeds, the potter's wheel, and the wheel. Money and the idea of written, collected law did not have to be rediscovered in this part of the world, nor did the use of certain medicinal drugs. A large number of the attributes or consequences of civilization were so obviously advantageous that they would be taken over by any successor society and carefully preserved amid vast political or cultural change. Other parts of the world had to invent some of these civilization features separately, but in this considerable region the river-valley civilizations produced a framework that never had to be redone.


Whether the early civilizations also produced a set of basic political and cultural impulses that would survive into later societies is harder to determine. Certainly there are some important traces. The flood story of Mesopotamia passed into the Jewish Bible and so into the cultural arsenal of both Christian and Muslim civilizations in the world today--some of them far distant, geographically, from the story's place of origin. We use words that come directly from the ancient Middle East or Egypt--such as the Sumerian-derived word alcohol--that suggest important transmissions. It is increasingly believed that modern music owes much to discoveries in early Mesopotamian civilization in the form of specific instruments (harps, drums, flutes) as well as in the development of the seven- and eight-token scales now used in the West and passed from Mesopotamia through Greece. Towers and columns now common in Muslim and in European and American architecture were based on the ziggurats and perhaps Egyptian columns. These continuities in style or vocabulary were not of course unchanged as they were transmitted, but they show the omgoing influence of the early civilizations on societies that succeeded Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The heritage of the early civilizations in politics, though incomplete, is fairly obvious. Ideas of divine kingship, worked out in Mesopotamia and Egypt, were remembered and revived in the later Roman empire, and may also have influenced later African monarchies. The importance of regional city-states recurrently marked Middle-Eastern history, with some bearing on the political fragmentation of the region even in recent times.

Some historians have gone further still, in suggesting an ongoing link between certain modern civilizations and their river-valley progenitors. It has been argued, for example, that cultures that accepted Mesopotamian influence, including classical Greece and later Christian cultures, emphasized a division between humanity and nature quite different from the civilization traditions launched by early societies in India, China, and probably sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of seeing humanity as part of a larger natural harmony, the Mesopotamian tradition held humans separate from nature, capable of observing and exploiting it from a different vantage point, seeing nature as antagonistic rather than seeking a peace within it. From this basic division in early cultures would come different scientific approaches, religions, and religious goals. The Middle East and Europe have long been centers of religions that encourage action and anxiety, as opposed to religious traditions of greater tranquility that arose in India; some of these characteristics may go back to the Sumerian world view. Distinctive attitudes toward women might even result, as the Mesopotamian tradition tended to argue that women were closer to nature than men and so more inherently inferior. Whether this basic cultural divide holds up in general may be debated; it may presume too much on what is known about later scientific or religious outlooks, not on what is known about the early civilizations themselves. Much would depend, of course, on how any Mesopotamian core tradition was transmitted into subsequent cultures such as the Greek, the Christian, and the Muslim.

Nevertheless, the idea of some basic guidelines passing down from the early civilizations is a fascinating one. Not fully provable and certainly not definite fact, the idea legitimately suggests the power and complexity of the values, not just the specific technical and social inventions, that early civilizations developed. There is one point that might give support to the idea of distinctive, durable frameworks of values: The civilizations that inherited from Egypt and Mesopotamia were not all the civilizations in the world. Other, quite separate early civilization centers, notably those in India, China, and later the Americas, would send out different signals, duplicating through separate invention some of the practical features of Egypt and Mesopotamia but inevitably producing quite different versions of culture and politics. More people in the world today look back to these other early civilizations for points of origin, than lay claim directly to the heritage of the Middle East and North Africa.


Further Readings

Two excellent studies can guide additional work on early civilization in Mesopotamia: C. L. Redman's the Rise of Civilization: From Early Farmers To Urban Society in the Ancient Near East (1988); and J. J. Nissen's The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C. (1988). See also S. N. Kramer's History Begins at Sumer (1981). Two fine studies of Egypt are A. Gardiner's Egypt of the Pharaohs (1966), a very readable treatment, and A. Nibbi's Ancient Egypt and some Eastern neighbors (1981). Patterns of life with some useful comparison are the subject of J. Hawkes' Life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Egypt (1973). Two recent books deal with important special topics: M. Silver's Economic Structures of the Ancient Near East (1987); and T. Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (1976).

Two studies of Israel are J. Bright's A History of Israel (1981); and the first two volumes of W. D. Davies and L. Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism (1984, 1987). For a study of Phoenicia, see N. K. Sandars' The Sea Peoples (1985). Early civilization in the Upper Nile is the subject of Roland Oliver, ed., The Dawn of African History (1968).

Source: International World History Project


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