The ancient Egyptians recognized some cases when it becomes impossible for couples to go on with their lives together, that is, when divorce is inevitable.
According to Archaeologist Dr Hussein Bassir, divorce was allowed in Pharaonic Egypt for several reasons, including hatred or if one of the spouses committed adultery, or if the husband was unable to have children, then the wife had the right to seek a divorce with a request for compensation.
The ancient Egyptian civilization enacted legislations regulating the rights and duties of women at divorce. And for reducing cases of divorce, many conditions had to be there before the divorce happens.
Not only did the husband in Pharaonic Egypt divorce his wife verbally, saying: “I’m leaving you as a wife”, but he was also handing over a written divorce document confirming her freedom and the end of the marital relationship between them, but also enables her to marry another if she wants.
The oldest divorce document available dates back to the era of King Ahmose II, written in demotic script, and they show the laws of divorce and its consequences and the method used in drafting its document.
According to Dr. Abdel Bassir, witnesses had to sign the divorce document, they were four witnesses, compared to witnesses at marriage who are 16. The formula of divorce was as follows: “I left you as a wife for me, and I separate from you, and have no request at all from you, and I’m telling you that it is up to you to take for yourself another husband whenever you want.”
In order to guarantee women’s rights at divorce, marriage contracts were stating appropriate financial compensation for women; as in one of the preserved papyri, a marriage contract from the second century BC, between a priest and his wife, where the husband was committed to pay substantial compensation within thirty days after possible divorce.
“The wife took appropriate compensation of money when getting divorced as well as dowry. Compensation began in the Pharaonic era with twice the value of the dowry, and in the Ptolemaic period, it was five times, and got up to ten times the maximum, and this compensation was too big to make divorce difficult,” said Dr. Abdel Bassir.
A demotic papyri for a certain divorce stated that the woman would receive 30 pieces of silver and 36 sacks of cereal each year throughout her life to provide for her living needs.
Men and women were equal before the law. Married women enjoyed full legal and financial independence, while there are still no documented sources of child custody.
On the contrary, documents also showed conditions if women wanted to leave their husbands. There is a text in the ancient Egyptian saying: “If you leave me as a husband, you have to return half of the dowry I gave you, named above.”
And another document dates back to the Ptolemaic era read: “On the day I leave you or you want to get out of my house upon your will, I will give you your stuff mentioned above.”
Thus the ancient Egyptian law took care of the rights of women, who were entitled to complain to the judiciary of their husbands’ abusive actions. This was a great leap in her time and distinguished the ancient woman from those living at their time in other parts of the world.