Binge Drinking and Equal Rights in Ancient Egypt; HISTORY

Daily Mail (London), March 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Binge Drinking and Equal Rights in Ancient Egypt; HISTORY


Byline: JOHN HARDING

WOMEN IN ANCIENT EGYPT

by Barbara Watterson ([euro]24.99, nationwide or amazon.com)

A WOMAN in Ancient Egypt spent a lot of time with a broom in her hand, because it's a country with a lot of sand. Constant sweeping wasn't the worst of it, though, because the ubiquity of sand meant she probably had rotten teeth, too.

Not only did sand get into food, but the Egyptians also added a little as an abrasive to help the process of grinding grain for flour to make bread. The grit in the bread cut people's gums, causing gum disease and eventually tooth decay and loss, so most people had bad or missing teeth.

This is one of the many unexpected details in Barbara Watterson's survey of Ancient Egyptian women's lives from contemporary inscriptions and papyrus writings.

Teeth apart though, Egyptian women in the 3,000 years leading up to the birth of Christ are revealed to have enjoyed higher status and better lives than many of their counterparts in the ancient world.

They were accorded the same legal rights as men of the same class, and inheritance was matrilineal, meaning property passed through the female line from mother to daughter.

Upon marriage a woman kept her own property -- something that didn't happen here until the 1882 Married Women's Property Act -- and she could leave her property to whomever she wished. This gave women a certain amount of independence, but they were still frozen out from public office, with men running the country and civil service. As in most early societies, a woman's role was mainly domestic. Most of the population were peasants, and women were occupied by preparing food, cleaning, brewing beer (a constant task, as the water was undrinkable and the beer went flat quickly and had to be brewed every other day), child care, weaving clothes and washing them in the Nile (without detergent, by pounding them with a stone) and helping out with the harvest.

The only professions open to women were the priesthood, midwifery, music and dancing. Although prostitution seems to have been rare, at one time something that sounds suspiciously like lap-dancing existed, where a performer wore nothing but a thong round her hips decorated with small beads that tinkled seductively as she swayed.

THIS may have been less racy than it sounds, since all women went barebreasted anyway, wearing just a long, usually white, linen skirt, cotton then being unknown in a country now famous for it. …

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