Ladies of Egypt: Then and Now
If there were country ratings in the ancient times, Egypt would be named the best place to live for women, as they were the only ones at that period who enjoyed social, legal and political fairness.
Women in Power
Ancient Athens, where the democracy as a way of ruling first appeared, deprived females of all their rights; a respectable Greek woman should not be even heard in public. Education, of course, was manly privilege solely. Meanwhile, Egypt can pride itself on educated women, who could read and write. Moreover, the women of the “Golden Age” (c. 2613 to 2494 BC) of the Old Kingdom could learn
medicine and serve as chief physicians. A little later, during the 6th Dynasty Nepet, the mother-in-law of Pharaoh Pepi I, held a position of a judge. The first female ruler in the world history was also Egyptian – Queen Hatshepsut, who acceded to the throne in 1478 BC and stayed in power till 1458 BC; she enhanced the state structure, reestablished trade routes sending delegation to Sinai and started massive construction projects including the temple at Deir el-Bahari. Queen Nefertiti and her husband Pharaoh Akhenaten created a wholly new religion, worshiping one god – Aton. Cleopatra was another influential woman who played remarkable role in domestic and foreign policy.
The new epoch brought new religion – Islam. However, women were still allowed to get the education and hold public positions. The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadija was engaged in trade. In the 13th century Shajar al-Durr, the widow of the Ayyubid Sultan, defended Egypt during the Seventh Crusade and in 1250 was appointed as the new monarch of the country.
Present-day Egypt keeps up the good tradition – in 1925 the first Egyptian Women’s Party was established; seventeen years later the newly-created Women’s National Party demanded for employing females in all state institutions; in 1956 women were granted the right to vote and stand in the elections. And the most recent data – 89 women were elected to the Egyptian parliament in 2015, this is the highest female representation in the history of the Parliament of this Arab Republic.
As historical records show, Egyptian women enjoyed all the social rights. According to the French Egyptologist Christien de Rouse Nobelcouer, they were “leading a happy life in a country where gender equality seemed to be normal”.
The marriage in the ancient times was an important event, though there were no religious or legal wedding ceremonies: the woman was considered married when she was moving from her parental house to the one of her husband. The legislature allowed the couple entering into marriage contracts as well; the earliest documented agreement is dating back to the 7th century BC. Fourteen was the approximate marriage age for girls, though there are some evidences of earlier weds.
In present-day Egypt girls can get married at an age of 18 and boys at 21, though in rural areas child marriages still can take place. Unlike the old times when the bride didn’t have any specific bridal cloth or party, today marriage is a big festival with lots of guests, sweets, music and a bride in a fancy white dress as a symbol of innocence.
After marriage woman in ancient times remained independent in terms of being able to control her assets, though her husband still could put wife’s property in use. In case of divorce which could happen based on any reason wife was collecting her property back and returning to the house of her parents. However, woman was receiving a third of her husband’s property if widowed.
Ancient Egyptian men could marry several women and women could have many husbands at a time. This kind of polygamy was justified at that period for child mortality rate was traditionally high, nevertheless polygamy was practiced only by wealthy Egyptians. Islam narrowed plural marriages to polygyny, allowing only men having more than one wife at a time, however, their number should not exceed four. According to Islamic tradition, all wives must be treated and financially furnished equally. Regardless this fact, the vast majority of modern Egyptian men prefer monogamous relationship.
The pregnancy was another significant occurrence in Ancient Egypt – it was a display of manly dignity and women fertility. Pregnant females were respected and considered successful, especially if they delivered son. Modern Egyptian males are eager to have a baby boy too. After all, men remain men even after thousands of years.
Unlike the Ancient Athens where men were the head of the family, Egypt recognized its women “the mistresses of the house” trusting them all the household matters and bringing up the children, but the ones providing the family needs have always been men. This aspect did change a little today – apart from the housework some women beaver away to support their men.
Beauty and Fashion
Beautiful – almost holy. Egyptians paid a lot of attention to their appearance and were the first to produce and use cosmetics and perfumes. The daily use of makeup was indicating the social status and significance of women.
It’s widely known that for skin rejuvenating Queen Cleopatra was bathing in milk and using the salts of the Dead Sea famous with its healing properties from the old times. Milk and honey masks were very popular among women as moisturizers. In order to idealize themselves the females tend to put a very bright makeup highlighting mainly their eyes and lips. Grounded red ochre mixed with water most commonly was used as a lipstick and kohl – as an eyeliner. Egyptians applied henna on their nails painting them into yellow and red, decorative body tattoos were also made of henna powder. They employed castor, sesame and olive oils for different body care procedures and burnt almond – for darkening eyebrows. Ancient Egyptians were removing hair not from all over their bodies but heads as well; instead they were putting on different wigs, the most important accessory in past and almost “shameful” one today.
If in Ancient Egypt makeup was believed to give protection of gods, today it’s just a tool emphasizing the beauty of women, however, modern Egyptian women favor their natural looks and makeup is not put frequently.
In ancient times women didn’t have such a choice of clothing material and style. Most commonly they wore linen garment as it was light and easily washed; wool and silk clothes also existed but they were not much in use; famous Egyptian cotton was introduced only in Coptic period. What women were dressed in during the Pharaonic era was narrow tube-shaped dress just bellow or above the chest with wide straps covering the breast. In the New Kingdom the robes, Indian sari-like shawls and tunics were adopted.
The way of dressing has surely changed a lot since then. Cosmopolitan Cairo best illustrates the present-day tendencies – from the hijab and the niqab to western-style clothing; seaside resorts allow even sleeveless tops, short skirts and shorts, though locals would rarely expose themselves so much away from the sea shore and even in the water the majority would wear conservative swimming suit covering the whole body and head in some cases.
Time is passing by and changes are still to happen but hopefully the loyalty, affection and respect of Egyptian men to their women will remain for ever and ever!