In the Semitic world, Babylonia was unique in the way it treated women’s rights and position. Probably due to the early matriarchal society, women often took precedence over men. Everywhere else women were permitted diverse levels of autonomy, but were always subordinate to men. Jewish men treated women with respect, but they were not equal to men. One of the early sovereigns in Babylonia was Ellat-Gulla, a queen. In neighboring Assyria, the bas-reliefs of the great king Assur-Bani-Pal, show his queen sitting next to him during a feast in a place of equal importance. Another major king, Sargon, left a list of trees brought into Babylon from another land; the entire transaction was carried out by his queen, who clearly was involved in the affairs of the state.
The Babylonian woman could engage in commercial partnerships, buy and sell, and lend and borrow money. She appeared in court as a plaintiff, defendant, or witness. She could leave her property in her will to whoever she chose. The documents regarding commercial issues and inheritance that have been found by archaeologists are extremely interesting. For example, there is a deed written by an elderly father who transformed his entire property to his daughter; she promised to look after him for the rest of his life and supply all his needs.
Several documents discuss a lady named Nubta, a Babylonian name meaning a honey bee. She was a businesswoman who owned several looms, and traded in the woven fabrics. The record shows she had accepted another person’s slave as an apprentice. The man was to stay for five years and learn the trade thoroughly. In addition to the teaching, Nubta committed herself to give him adequate food, shelter, and clothing for the duration of his stay with her. Incidentally, the position of a slave was not the same as we know it. Slavery was more like indentured servitude, and sometimes even better, where the slave was pretty much one of the family. But the subject, which is quite complicated, naturally demands its own segment and explanation.
Nubta’s father was a Syrian immigrant who was adopted in youth by another Syrian family, long established in Babylon. I speculate that he was a young relative, sent by his family in Syria to have a better life in Babylon. His wife, Nubta’s mother, was involved in an interesting legal case against her husband’s half brother. When Nubta’s father died, the half brother figured it was a good time to try to steal the house that was owned jointly by Nubta’s parents, and originally bought by the mother’s dowry. He attempted to do so despite the fact that the house was registered under the widow’s name. Apparently, he wanted a piece of the business they owned together too. Nubta’s mother took the half brother to court, and won the case.
Woman held an equal position in religious matters as well. Priestesses were as common as priests, and did similar work. All the oracles of the goddess Ishtar were women, and groups of women formed orders of nuns, serving the sun god. The office was considered important, and several princesses, daughters and nieces of kings, chose to join the orders. They lived in chastity, but not poverty. Acting as a corporation, they engaged in diverse commercial enterprises.
When immigrants or captive populations came to Babylon, they became citizens and were subjects to Babylonian law. When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, I imagine the women found the increased liberty, the financial autonomy, and all the other improvements in their rights and status rather rewarding. The sad songs about how much they missed their native land were probably written by the men.
Stay tuned -- next week we'll go into marriage, divorce, concubines, prostitutes...