Comparison of Gender Systems in the Classical World - where was it best to be a woman?

Authors Avatar by shi_melanie (student)

During the thousands of years of history from the emergence of the First Civilizations to the radical reforms of the 19th century, societies have been everywhere patriarchal, featuring the dominance of men over women in the family and in the overall society. This universally applied to the civilizations from the classical era; however, the degree and expression of patriarchy varied from one culture to another. Therefore, if I were a woman living in the classical era, I would prefer to live in the ancient Indian civilization because Indian women had the opportunity to become Buddhist nuns and enjoy partial freedom. In contrast, Chinese women were at the bottom of society, and Mediterranean women were regarded as lowly in Athens, their status only improving slightly with the rise of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, regardless of my choice, judging the past through the standards of the present is not a valid approach to historical inquiry.

        Though the classic Hindu text, The Laws of Manu, had clearly defined the position of ordinary Indian women as “never…independent”, some Indian women had the option of becoming Buddhist nuns and entering monasteries. These women, whom according to the Psalms of the Sisters document were called bikkhunis, were fortunate enough to possess a degree of freedom and independence unavailable elsewhere in Indian society. Bikkhunis largely ran their own affairs, were forbidden to do household chores, and devoted themselves wholly to the search for awakening; they were not bogged down with the industrious tasks of sewing, cooking, and reproducing like other women in India and in other classical civilizations. This gave them more liberty to make their own decisions and live their own lives. This relative freedom makes life as an Indian bikkhuni seem attractive to me.

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 It becomes even more evident that bikkhunis held favorable positions in regards to other classical women through comparison of female Buddhist monks with the females of ancient China and the Mediterranean. For example, Historian Ban Zhao writes in Lessons for Women: “Let a woman modestly yield to others; let her respect others; let her put others first, herself last…Always let her seem to tremble and to fear”. Furthermore, acclaimed poet Fu Xuan lamented the status of females in Chinese society in How Sad it is to be a Woman, stating, “Nothing on earth is held so cheap…no one is glad ...

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