In the very earliest Sumerian texts, particularly those from roughly 3000 to 2500 Be, women are everywhere. Early histories not only record the names of numerous female rulers, but make clear that women were well represented among the ranks of doctors, merchants, scribes, and public officials, and generally free to take part in all aspects of public life.
One cannot speak of full gender equality: men still outnumbered women in all these areas. Still, one gets the sense of a society not so different than that which prevails in much of the developed world today.
Over the course of the next thousand years or so, all this changes. The place of women in civic life erodes; gradually, the more familiar patriarchal pattern takes shape, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, a weakening and eventually wholesale disappearance of women’s role in government and the liberal professions, and the loss of women’s independent legal status, which renders them wards of their husbands.
By the end of the Bronze Age, around noo BC, we begin to see large numbers of women sequestered away in harems and (in some places, at least), subjected to obligatory veiling.
In fact, this appears to reflect a much broader worldwide pattern. It has always been something of a scandal for those who like to see the advance of science and technology, the accumulation of learning, economic growth-“human progress,” as we like to call it-as necessarily leading to greater human freedom, that for women, the exact opposite often seems to be the case. Or at least, has been the case until very recent times. A similar gradual restriction on women’s freedoms can be observed in India and China. The question is, obviously, Why?
The standard explanation in the Sumerian case has been the gradual infiltration of pastoralists from the surrounding deserts who, presumably, always had more patriarchal mores. There was, after all, only a narrow strip of land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that could support intensive irrigation works, and hence, urban life. Civilization was thus from early times surrounded by a fringe of desert people, who lived much like those described in Genesis and spoke the same Semitic languages.
It is undeniably true that, over the course of time, the Sumerian language was gradually replaced-first by Akkadian, then by Amorite, then by Aramaic languages, and finally, most recently of all, by Arabic, which was also brought to Mesopotamia and the Levant by desert pastoralists. While all this did, clearly, bring with it profound cultural changes as well, it’s not a particularly satisfying explanation. Former nomads appear to have been willing to adapt to urban life in any number of other ways. Why not that one? And it’s very much a local explanation and does nothing, really, to explain the broader pattern.
Feminist scholarship has instead tended to emphasize the growing scale and social importance of war, and the increasing centralization of the state that accompanied it. This is more convincing. Certainly, the more militaristic the state, the harsher its laws tended to be toward women.
But I would add another, complementary argument. As I have emphasized, historically, war, states, and markets all tend to feed off one another. Conquest leads to taxes. Taxes tend to be ways to create markets, which are convenient for soldiers and administrators.
In the specific case of Mesopotamia, all of this took on a complicated relation to an explosion of debt that threatened to turn all human relations and by extension, women’s bodies-into potential commodities.
At the same time, it created a horrified reaction on the part of the (male) winners of the economic game, who over time felt forced to go to greater and greater lengths to make clear that their women could in no sense be bought or sold.