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Women in Iran, the Creation of Patriarchy 3000 BC 21st Century
Last Updated: October, 2009

Women in Iran, the Achaemenid and Seleucid eras

The first wave of Iranians, the ancient Medes and the Persians entered Western Iran from around the first millennium BC. By the 7th century BC, Medes had established themselves, made an alliance with Babylon and overthrew the Assyrian Empire. In 549 BC, the Persians, led by Cyrus the king of Anshan, rebelled, defeated the Medes, and founded the Achaemenian Empire. Archaeological records provide valuable information with respect to women’s lives and status. Information is based on texts discovered at Persepolis (509-438 BC) and documents recovered at Susa Babylonia and other major Mesopotamian cities. In the texts individual women are identified, payments of rations and wages for male and female workers are documented and sealed orders by the royal women themselves or their agents gives us valuable information on how the average and the powerful women managed their lives. The king’s mother had the highest rank and seems to be the head of the female members of the household. The next was the queen (mother of the crown prince or the principal wife) followed by the kings’ daughters and sisters. They all had titles with recognized authority at the court, and had their own administration for managing their considerable wealth. Funerary customs and inscriptions commemorating the death of royal women also reflect the official recognition of these women, particularly the king’s mother and wife. Queen Amestris, wife of Xerxes had 14 youth of noble origin buried with her as part of funerary customs (Herodotus). Herodotus criticizes and mocks the Persian rulers for letting their women to run their courts. This is another indication of the powerful position royal women held in Persia, which is opposite to the role Greek women played at the time.

The king was the ultimate source of authority and the royal women acted within a clearly defined spectrum of norms and standards set by the king. However within the spectrum they enjoyed economic independence, were involved in the administration of economic affairs, traveled and controlled their wealth and position by being active, resolute and enterprising. The non-royals and the ordinary workers are mentioned by their rank in the specific work groups or workshops they were employed. The rations they received are based on skill and the level of responsibility they assumed in the workplace. The professions are divided by gender and listed according to the amount of ration. Records indicate that some professions were undertaken by both sexes while others were restricted to either male or female workers. There are male and female supervisors at the mixed workshops as evident by the higher rations they have received with little difference in the amount of rations between the two sexes. There are also occasions where women listed in the same category as men received less rations and vice versa. Female managers have different titles presumably reflecting their level of skill and rank. New mothers and pregnant women received higher rations and sons were clearly preferred over daughters. If they delivered boys both the mother and the nurse or the physician received higher rations. The extra payments were given out for one month only. Consistently mothers of boys received twice the amount compared to mothers of baby girls. There is no evidence of infanticide for girls as the number of births of male children only slightly exceeds the number of girls born.

Other prominent female managers are also mentioned with relatively large workforces at several locations. The texts demonstrate that these work units headed by female managers were found throughout the regions covered by the archives. It is also clear that ration scales varied according to the qualifications of laborers in the same profession and that within this differentiated scheme male and female workers received equal rations. However, in cases where the labor is not specialized, it appears that men received more rations compared to women. In the records numbers of male and female workers are well-balanced a clear indication of women’s active and healthy participation in the economic life of the period. Ordinary women owned and leased their properties and paid taxes. Such information indicates a level of independence and recognition of women as legal entities that could own sell or lease their properties.
The documents recognize the biological descent of the royal offspring and the significance of the natural mother. Cyrus’s children, Cambyses and Bardiya are described as descendants of the same father and the same mother. This implies that there were other children not born from the same mother. Royal women traveled extensively visited their estates and administered their wealth individually and at times with help from their husbands. Families were patriarchal, polygamy and concubines existed; marriage with close relatives even brothers and sisters was practiced amongst the royalty. Such marriages normally occur when matrilineal inheritance is an issue. In such systems daughters receive a large inheritance and since dowries should also be paid one practical solution for keeping the wealth in the family is to marry close relatives. Since we know nothing about inheritance patterns of the period conclusions cannot be made about why such marriages took place. The same family and marriage patterns are found amongst the nobles and wealthy citizens throughout the empire. In one account by Xenophon a female satrap, Mania the wife of Zenis, was appointed after her husband’s death and remained in control until her death.

With respect to royal concubines they existed and are normally referred to as women of the king. They had personal attendants and were not exclusive to the kings. They are found in the palaces of the satraps and Persian nobles. There is not enough information about their status to make concrete conclusions. Some would have been captives and from foreign origins. They are found together with the other women in the king’s or the noble’s entourage. They were present in the banquets and on royal hunts. The kings and the nobles would normally marry into the Persian royalty and aristocracy so it is very unlikely that they were ever married and gained the status of a wife in such households.

 We know divorce existed but have no information on details. Amestris a niece of Darius is mentioned several times in the texts. She was married to a man called Craterus but was soon abandoned by him and after her divorce was remarried to Dionysius, a local ruler. They produced three children and after her husband’s death in 306 BC she acted as regent. She reigned as queen for a while but was finally murdered by her sons.

Contemporary sources in Babylonia and other territories under Achaemenid shed some light on the legal side of the marriage alliances of ordinary couples. We have no evidence that the practices described in these documents would be identical to Persian practices, however similarities existed and the information is revealing. Forty-five such marriage contracts are discovered in Babylonia. The contracts are always between the husband and members of the bride’s family. They begin with the husband’s pledge to be given the woman in marriage and gifts to be presented to the bride and her family. The property and inheritance laws are as they were earlier on. Other documents in Babylonia (also Elam and Egypt) show that women owned properties, which they could sell or lease. After the death of her husband, the widowed wife inherited from the deceased even if she did not have children. A woman could not act as a witness in the drawing up of contracts, but she could act as a contracting party and have her own seal. If there were children from two wives, the children of the first wife inherited two thirds and the others one third only. It is not clear what would be the case if a man had more than two wives. If a woman died childless, the dowry was returned to the house of her father.

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. The Achaemenid kings strengthened Anahita’s cult and major temples were built in her honor. However there is not enough evidence to demonstrate that females including royal women 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. There are no depictions of women in Persepolis itself, however there are many seals, statues and figurines in other areas that indicate there were no restrictions on the depiction of Persian women. The aristocratic and royal women very likely used veil in public as a sign of their higher status. However, there are also records of queens gaining popularity by showing themselves to their subjects. Veiling as an institution to subjugate, control and exclude women from public domain originated after the Islamic conquest.

 In summary, the women of this period owned property and were involved in managing their assets. They 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. Class differences existed and were important. Patriarchal system prevailed and husbands and fathers 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 Sasanian Empire.

The Greek conquest and the subsequent rule by the Seleucid dynasty did not introduce major changes with respect to women (305-125 BC). However several Greek goddesses became popular amongst Iranians and were venerated. Major temples were built in their honor and such goddesses are often depicted on coins from Seleucid period and the latter Parthian era. Wives of Seleucid kings also held extensive properties, participated in religious cults and even acted as regent for their sons.


Women in Iran, the Parthian era

Parthians were heirs to the Alexander’s empire and ruled Iran beginning in the third century BC. In one document a Roman spy Isidore of Charax, recording overland trading routes in first century BC for the Roman army, mentions many temples of Artemis, Semiramis and Anaitis (Anahita) throughout the Parthian kingdom. There are also Parthian coins with depictions of the Greek goddess Tyche (Roman Fortuna, personification of luck).

In his accounts of the Parthian way of life, Roman Historian Justin mentions "Each man has several wives, for the sake of gratifying desire with different objects. They punish no crime more severely than adultery, and accordingly they not only exclude their women from entertainment, but forbid them the very sight of men". In the lack of archaeological evidence it is hard to substantiate such claims. However in the major cities and with the aristocracy the noble and royal women very likely continued the same as before. There is Parthian coinage with Queen Musa in the first century AD, and we also know of Queen Ri-nu who acted as regent for Phraates II (138-127BC). Statues of Parthian Queens in Hatra (in modern Iraq) and their burial sites indicate the very high status the royal Parthian women enjoyed.

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