By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
Women were economically dependent on men (Leick 2007, p 173). Women in domestic households were generally cooks and brewers, and their dowries sometimes reflected this.
A tablet from Sippar lists the contents of a dowry, including a 20 liter copper kettle, two stone grinding slabs, six chairs, a table, a bronze pot, a mortar and four small spoons. In the code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian woman with no food at home whose husband was a prisoner of war was entitled to join the household of another man.
Despite the subjugated role that women had in Mesopotamian society, there were some exceptions. A free-for-all atmosphere seems to have prevailed among followers of Inanna, whether during festivals or at her centers of worship. Also, Babylonian women could run alehouses/taverns. Women throughout the same social classes in Mesopotamia generally had similar treatment. There are some exceptions, however.
In both Assyrian and Babylonia, a woman entered the household of her husband upon marriage.
This was without exception in Babylonia, but in Assyria some women remained in their father's household and were visited by their husband (Smith 1928, p 319). The reasons are not understood, but such marriages seem confined to poorer classes and likely arose from convenience rather than any social difference.
Levirate marriage was extensive in Assyria (Smith 1928, p 319). Once the bride price had been paid, a widow could be claimed by the deceased's brother, or in some cases even his father. Similarly, a widower was entitled to claim her sister. Though more restricted than in Assyria, levirate marriage was also common among the Hebrews; it remains undocumented in Babylonia. This reflects Assyria's cultural link with the west.
Early Dynastic Women
Amid the social stratification of the Early Dynastic era, women and other groups lost influence (Leick 2007, p 256). Women participated less in real-estate transactions, and of the nearly hundred inscribed intercessor (adoring) statuettes of the later Early Dynastic era, women commissioned no more than six.
Old Babylonian Women
According to an Old Babylonian divorce document, women were conferred some protections.
He declared: "You can hang me up on a peg, yea dismember me but I will not stay married to her!"
Then they questioned his wife and she answered: "I still love my husband."
He, however, refused. He knotted up her hem and cut it off.
The gentlemen questioned him: "A woman who has come to live with your family and whose status as a married wife is known in your ward, is she to depart simply like that?" Fit her out exactly as she was when she moved in with you."
(Veenhoff 1976, via Leick 2001
Old Assyrian Women
Karum merchants often took local wives at the colony in addition to any wife at his homeland estate, but were required to provide for both (Leick 2001, p 202). In exchange for producing textiles and responding quickly to fashions and tastes, the Assyrian wife had significant autonomy. She was her husband's proxy commercially, legally and oftentimes financially; also, she gained some of the profit for herself.
Veenhoff, K R. 1976. 'The Dissolution of an Old Babylonian Marriage According to CT 45-86', Revue d'Assyriologie 70, p 153-64.