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By Massoume Price
There were attempts by Darius to codify the legal system but no standard set of laws is discovered. The conquered territories used their own legal system with little interference from the central administration. For example Jewish colonies in Elephantine in Egypt followed their own legal code. Husbands remained monogamous and all property and family matters were settled in the special courts of the Jews. Of all the territories under Achaemenid administration Egyptian women enjoyed more rights and privileges. The family was basically monogamous but under certain conditions husbands could marry other wives and were permitted sexual intercourse with slaves and household servants ( a common practice in the region). A husband did not have the right to pawn her wife as security for debts. This practice existed in various forms in Babylonia and even Sassanian Persia. Wives retained their own property in marriage and after divorce. They also had the right to transfer their property to their children as inheritance and could initiate divorce. If the husband initiated divorce he had to apportion a part of the property to his wife. If the woman asked for a divorce she had to return the money she had received from her husband as bride price and could not lay claim upon property acquired jointly with the husband. Sons and daughters inherited equal portions. However fathers' power over children was substantial and he could pawn them as security for debt.

To what extent Persian family and marriage contracts resembled above examples is hard to say without concrete evidence. But there would have been similarities since Achaemenid extensively utilized Neo-Babylonian and Egyptian codes of conduct and legal systems as part of their imperial policy. One major difference that existed between the Persian women and others in the empire is with respect to the participation in religious cults. Egyptians and Babylonians had many goddesses and temples designated to female deities. Women including royals served and participated actively in running of these temples and ritual ceremonies. Neither the Fortification texts nor the Greek evidence suggest that Achaemenid royal women played any part in religious ceremonies. There is no reference to other women being involved either.    

We do know that the Kings before assuming their throne and going to major wars were ritually blessed at the temple of Anahita a significant female deity. However there is no evidence to demonstrate that females including royals participated at such rituals. Strict purity laws might have restricted women's access to such involvement but in the absence of historical records no conclusion can be made.

With respect to veiling and seclusion of Persian women as suggested by the Greek sources Fortification texts do not shed any light on the subject. Veiling has a long history in ancient Mesopotamia and Mediterranean cultures. In the first known reference to veiling, an Assyrian legal text of the thirteenth century B.C., it is restricted to respectable women and prohibited for the prostitutes and lower class women. There are no depiction of women in Persepolis itself, however there are many seals, statues and figurines that indicate there were no restrictions on the depiction of Persian women. In some of these, women are pictured fully clothed with partial veils in others, they are dressed even crowned but no veil. The aristocratic and royal women very likely used veil in public as a sign of their higher status. But veiling as an institution to subjugate, control and exclude women from public domain originated after the Islamic conquest.

In summary the evidence of the Fortification and Treasury texts provide us with a unique insight into the social and economic situation of Persian women, royal and non-royal, as well as female workers. These women owned property, were involved in managing their assets. Participated in economic activities of the estate and other economic units. They had employment opportunities earned wages and as a result were able to be economically independent. Patriarchal system prevailed and husbands and other males had far more rights and privileges than their wives or children. Nevertheless such evidence clearly indicates that women in ancient Iran were not an undifferentiated mass leading a secluded life behind high walls without any function and purpose other than child rearing. A situation that sadly became their destiny for many centuries after the collapse of The Sassanian Empire.

By: Massoume Price

Massoume Price is an Ecologist and social Anthropologist educated in Iran, Pahlavi University and London University England, Kings and University Colleges. She is a freelance writer, has worked with women and immigrant groups. She currently lives and works in Canada.

Essential readings:

  • Women in Ancient Persia; Maria Brosius, Oxford University Press, 1998.   This book is a detailed analysis of the Fortification and Treasury texts with respect to women. This book is a must for any one interested in women's studies. 
  • Ancient Persia; Josef Wiesehofer, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London/New York 1996.   An excellent and up to date general history up to the Islamic conquest.
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