Author’s note: When we talk about Babylonia and Assyria, we are referring to the area that is known as Mesopotamia. Today, this includes most of Iraq and Kuwait as well as parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of civilization, beginning with large city-states that lined the river and flourished since the fourth millennium BC. These city-states were eventually conquered by the Sumerian King Sargon the Great of Akkad and became the Akkadian Empire. Sargon’s daughter, Enheduanna, is the first known author in the entire world. She penned poems and prayer about the gods and goddesses, signing her name to them. The cultures of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires are intertwined as the strength of Babylonia and Assyria waxed and waned throughout the third to first millennium BC, so for this look at girlhood, we are generalizing the status of girls and women during both empires.

The role and status of girls and women in ancient Mesopotamia was different depending who was ruling and an individual’s social class. In general, girls and women had more rights in the preceding Sumer period than they did the in Babylonian and Assyrian periods. Sumerian women owned property, ran businesses, were priestess, judges, doctors, scribes and witnesses in court. Female deities held as much prominence and were worshipped as much as male deities. As the Babylonian and Assyrian periods rose, this shifted and the rights of women declined.

Education was important during this period, and thousands of school tablets have been found.

Cuneiform tablet: student exercise tablet, ca. 20th–16th century B.C. Babylonian, Old Babylonian Clay; 7.6 x 2.9 cm (3 x 1 1/8 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, 1886 (86.11.251)

Some of these include complex mathematical equations. The schools were attached to temples and included learning the written language of the time: cuneiform. It was written on clay tablets by carving the characters, of which there were over 600. The cuneiform language also included numbers from 1-60. These numbers must have been difficult to learn as the sign for 1 and 60 were the same. However, only boys were sent to schools in formal education. There were exceptional cases where girls were educated in school from wealthy families or royalty.

Gender Roles

Girls and women were primarily seen as wives, mothers, and housekeepers. This role crossed all levels of society. Girls stayed at home learning the tasks and skills they would need once they were married and running households of their own and raising children. Marriage was the main occupation for a girl in both the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. Shortly after puberty, a girl’s father would arrange a suitable marriage for her. In this period a marriage was a legal contract drawn up between the two families. The bride’s father would pay a dowry to the couple and the groom’s family would pay a bride price to her family.

A different role for girls was as a priestess to the gods and goddesses. Priestesses, naditu, during this time could become very important and powerful. A girl could be sold to a temple, and it was considered an honor to have a priestess in the family. As well as being sold to a temple, a girl could also be sold into prostitution by her family. In the Assyrian and Babylonia Empires, prostitution was not considered degrading. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that sacred prostitution was carried out by priestesses in temples.

Girls could also be involved in business and industry. Weaving and making cloth was a large economy in the Mesopotamian region and girls were heavily involved in the product of cloth. Weaving would be the girl’s priority as well their domestic activities. Girls could also be employed in food production, brewing beer and wine, making incense and midwifery.


One interesting aspect that has become apparent through legal texts in the concept of adoption. The rights and interests of both parties were protected within these legal texts, and we are able to discover how adoption worked in the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Adoption involved creating legal documentation, which was confirmed by witnesses and sealed on tablets.

The adoption of children was common during this period to childless couples, palace eunuchs, and females dedicated to religious celibacy. One motivation was to ensure there was someone to support and look after a person or couple during old age. Another was for inheritance, particularly if a wife had not produced a child but the husband had been able to have children with a slave or concubine. The children of a slave or concubine could be adopted by the chief wife in order to legitimize the children. A child of a slave and a freeman, once adopted, was recognized as having the same rights as a natural child, including the rights of inheritance. This included both boys and girls.

One major difference in the adoption of girls to boys is that, normally, girl adoptions included a transaction of money or property from the adopter to the arranger of the adoption. Girls could even consent to adoption if they were of age. It was also usual for marriage agreements to be included in the adoption agreement of girls. For example, there may be a clause that a girl adopted cannot be married to a slave or must be married within the family that are adopting her.

One area of special adoptions is by the female priestesses of the period – the naditu, who adopted girls as daughters. For example, in Sippur, the naditu who were dedicated to the gods were cloistered away from the general public. They followed strict rules regarding celibacy and so had no children to support them in later life. Normally, it would be the responsibility of the naditu’s brother to support her when she was no longer able to serve as a priestess. However, when there was no family, it was common to adopt a boy or a girl instead. In addition, a girl could be trained as a priestess to follow in the footsteps of the naditu. In Nippar, naditu adopted married women as daughters instead of young, unmarried girls. Naditu of the Babylonian god Marduk were permitted to marry and have husbands but were not allowed to conceive. So they would adopt children with their husband.

It was not only the naditu who adopted girls as daughters, but also ordinary people. There is a document from Nuzi, which tells us of a woman who adopted a girl named Azai from her father. In the contract, the woman was allowed to give the daughter in marriage “where she pleases” and to enjoy the bride price she would receive. In another document, an orphaned girl name Sitnaka gave herself and her brother to a woman in adoption as son and daughter. Sitnaka agreed to marry to woman’s slave or to work for her and in return be supported for her whole life by the woman.

Royalty were also involved in adoption. There is a letter from a princess of the Mari Kingdom, which was incorporated into both the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires during its existence. In the letter, the princess wrote to her father, the king of Mari, stating, “You yourself gave me into daughtership”, indicating that she was adopted.

Notably, for slaves, adoption was used a form of emancipation, to free them from slavery. The motivation was often to ensure that the adoptee was cared for during their elder years, and that religions traditions were carried out after death. One major difference is that slaves who were adopted did not have inheritance rights, as the act of being given their freedom was seen as reward enough. However, if a naditu adopted a slave girl, they had special privileges and could be married and the naditu received the bride price for the marriage. Often the relationship between a naditu and a slave girl was like mother and daughter and so led to adoption.

Girls in the law

Babylonian laws were written down upon large stones known as stele. The discovery of these stele allow us an insight into the society of these periods and the position of girls within them.

In the law code of Eshunna, crimes against free women were punishable by death. The murder of a free woman was considered equal to the murder of a man and punishable by death. There are also laws regarding the marriage of girls and the bride price paid to the family, with no reference to a dowry to the groom’s family. For slave girls, crimes committed against them were compensated to their owner for loss of value to their good. It is significant that free women were considered equal in the law to men and criminal punishment was the same whether the crime was against a man or woman. However, those in slavery were not protected, rather their master’s loss of value was protected.

The laws also protected girls from assault, however, the punishment was different depending on the social status of the girl. For example, if a pregnant citizen and daughter of a citizen was struck and miscarried as a result, the compensation was ten sheqels of silver. If the victim was a commoner, the compensation was five sheqels of silver. If she died and was a citizen, the daughter of the offender was put to death. If she died and was commoner, the compensation was thirty sheqels of silver because it was not considered homicide as she was of less value than the female citizen. If a slave girl died, she was considered property and her owner was compensated. The distinction between social class of girl dictated the punishment in several of the laws of Hammurabi.

Texts from the Assyrian Empire show that girls rights were becoming even more limited as time progressed. Girls could only own minimal property and rarely inherited property, only when there were no other males to inherit. Wives could not initiate divorce and they now wore veils and lived segregated in the household away from the outside world. Women were still liable for any debts incurred by their husbands, however, this was not reciprocated. If a girl challenged male authority, the punishment was death.

Girls and women were taken in conquest and their rape, torture and murder were not considered crimes. In fact, Kings boasted of their violence following conquest. The Middle Assyrian king Salmanu-ashared I claimed to have blinded 14,400 war captives. There is also evidence that slaves taken in conquest were used for forced labor. Captive slaves were deported to distant corners of the empire to work and cultivate land for the empire.

By the end of the Assyrian Empire, females had become invisible in the law except as victims of crimes.

-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Program Developer
Girl Museum Inc.

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