Ancient Persia’s Remarkable Women

August 31st, 2009 in Women's History by Frank Chadwick

Many of our widely-held beliefs concerning the role of women in ancient Persian society come from Greek writers such as Herodotus, and most of them are wrong. The Greeks wrote from a position of considerable ignorance, and what little they did know was distorted by two lenses.

First, they were clearly influenced by their own notions of a woman’s place. In Greece, women were property, generally uneducated, and in the words of a friend of mine, “not second class citizens, just second-class.” In Athens and many city-states, their only real “right” was “to make citizens.” That is, citizenship was traced through the maternal line, although in all other respects Greek society was overwhelmingly patriarchal.

The second lens was that of propaganda. The Greeks were in a state of near-constant warfare with the Persians until Alexander’s conquest, so differences between Greek and Persian society were portrayed in a negative manner.

As a consequence, we think of Persian women as generally sequestered and hidden behind veils, having no role in society or commerce except for the occasional powerful woman who, by the power of seduction, influenced the judgment of kings, usually with ill results.

But we have another source of information which bears on the role of Persian women, and it is a source free of bias, as it records no opinions, simply financial transactions. These are the clay tablets of the Persepolis Treasury and Fortification records. These, along with surviving marriage contracts and commercial agreements, tell an entirely different story.

Women brought a dowry into marriage, and that dowry formed part of the marital property owned in common by the husband and wife. But either party could divorce the other, with or without cause, and in that case the dowry returned to the wife. More interesting are the records of wives retaining property of their own aside from the dowry, including shares in commercial concerns and real estate, which they sold or traded without reference to their husbands. Upon death of parents, property passed to the children, with equal shares going to male and female children.

Aside from property ownership, the Treasure Records give us a fascinating insight into women at work in ancient Persia. The Treasury records enumerate amounts paid to laborers and contractors who undertook work in and around Persepolis. The records also tell us the names of the workers, their gender, and their responsibilities. Enterprises were undertaken by teams of workers under a manager, and while some occupations were restricted primarily to a single gender (most weavers were female, for example), the range of occupations in which women worked is remarkable: wood-workers, stone-workers, artisans, wine-makers, furniture-makers, treasury clerks, store keepers, carriers, grain-handlers. Most trades included both male and female workers, often mixed in the same work teams. Female managers controlled teams of female workers but also mixed teams of males and females.

Rates of pay are also surprising. Men were paid slightly more than women in unskilled jobs like manual labor. In skilled occupations, however, there was no difference in pay based on gender, and some female managers were paid more than the vast majority of male workers. Women also received paid maternity leave.

It has been suggested that women were sequestered because their appearance was considered either sacred or profane (depending on who is speaking), and that is the reason they are not depicted in Persian art. This is a most curious claim because ancient Persian art actually abounds with depictions of women. The only place they are not depicted is on sacred temple carvings and public buildings. Why this is so is uncertain, but there is an abundance of seals, statues, and figurines depicting Persian women from this period. Some of them are veiled, many are not, and the current view is that the veil was worn on occasion either while traveling or as a fashion statement (as was the case in the west in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

Certainly it is hard to imagine a female stone mason wearing a veil.

Persian society was patriarchal, and men held the dominant positions in government, commerce, the military, and the family. That having been said, the position of Persian women in this society was rich, varied, and important. Women owned property, often managed their own assets, could work and earn wages for themselves, and were capable of becoming economically independent. Much of this was swept away by Alexander’s conquest, in the guise of Greek “civilization,” and the remainder with the rise of Islam. But it is worth remembering that over two thousand years ago Persian women enjoyed rights that American women fought to gain as recently as the last century.

About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.

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