Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hatshepsut - A Modern Woman of Ancient Times

One of my most favourite characters from ancient Egyptian history is Hatshepsut. I always feel that she would have been completely at ease in any corporate board room of the 21st century, in fact, most women in the corporate sector of our times are still facing the same situations as she did and are still coping with them the way she did.

As a society ancient Egypt was fairly modern in its attitude towards women, where they could own land, slaves and had the right to go to court for justice (I guess the modern world is not so modern after all). In such a scenario one might ask what made Hatshepsut special? She was by no means the first woman to rule Egypt, there have been cases before her where women have ruled as consorts along with their husband the Pharaoh or mothers appointed as regents entrusted with the throne on behalf of a young Pharaoh. What makes Hatshepsut different is that she was the first woman who dared to declare herself as a Pharaoh.

A Pharaoh was not merely a king, he was the embodiment of Horus (the son of Osiris and Isis) - hence by proclaiming herself as a Pharaoh Hatshepsut proclaimed her divinity. Imagine the powers of the US President , the Pope along with the leaders of all major religions and the chairpersons of every major corporations all rolled into one - that was the Pharaoh for the Egyptians. When Hatshepsut declared herself as the Pharaoh, she did not merely take on the role of a Pharaoh, she gave the ancient world the message that a woman was just as capable. 3500 years after her the 'modern woman' is still trying to prove to the men that she is just as capable.

The story of Hatshepsut's ascent to the throne is a triumph of propaganda, which would make the most seasoned 21st century PR people look like novices. In Egypt although the royal bloodline was established through women (resulting in many incestuous marriages) women themselves were not considered to be the divine heirs, that honour was for the men. The more audacious the plan the better the communication strategy has to be as any CEO will tell you. You cannot afford to have a half baked communication strategy for a mega merger or hostile acquisition which could raise doubts, leave you vulnerable and have the entire deal go south.

Hatshepsut initially came to power as the regent of the young Pharaoh Tuthmose III who was her step son and too young to perform the tasks of state and religious leadership. But being a regent was not enough for Hatshepsut, her ambition was bigger than any woman had ever dared for in history. She wanted to be the Pharaoh.

Being a brilliant strategist she devised a 2 pronged strategy to cover all her bases. First she claimed that her father Tuthmose I himself had appointed her as his successor and secondly she proclaimed that Amun himself came disguised as her father Tuthmose I to her mother and she was born as a result of this divine union. Hence her claim to the throne was legitimized not just through the mortal lineage but by the divine as well. Now that's what I call a PR coup!

Women in the corporate world today know that even when they reach the top, they still have to work harder than their male counterparts to hold on to their positions. Many women who reach the pinnacle of power appear ruthless, hard and aggressive, they may have a different side with their family, but to the rest of the world we show a hard shell .

Hatshepsut was no exception. It was not enough that she was the Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt, she had to do things which were bigger and better. Her building projects were bolder and more audacious than ever before. Her funerary temple at Deir Al-Bahri still represents a masterpiece of symmetry far predating the Parthenon. The twin obelisks she erected at the temple of Karnak were the tallest in the world at that time. So many statues were made during her reign that today almost every museum in the world has pieces from that time.

Western women know the importance of the correct dress code for a high powered board meeting. You would never see one wearing a floral printed chiffon dress in a meeting, the business attire is a business suit (just look at Hillary Clinton). Hatshepsut caught on to this before anyone else, since she was a Pharaoh she dressed as one. She understood that the symbols of power are just as important as power itself so she sported the traditional false beard which was a symbol of the Pharaoh's power, she wore the Khat (head cloth) the Uraeus and the Shendyt.
Her rule was successful and long (over 20 years) but upon her death her step-son Tuthmose III, whose regent she was initially appointed did everything he could to erase her from the memory and history of Egypt. Her statues were defaced and her cartouche (royal name hieroglyph) was scratched out from the monuments. Some historians believe that this was due to his hate for his step-mother for taking over his throne, however many records have been found which show that Tuthmose III wasn't sidelined during her time, he played an active role and Hetshpesut shared her power with him.
I suspect that the rampage to remove her name from history emanated not from the Pharaoh, but from the priests - nothing seems to have changed in over 3000 years I guess, religion pulled the strings then, and religion is pulling the strings now. Somewhere at the root of all the hatred for Hatshepsut was the fact that she was a woman who dared to take the ultimate prize.
I think the parallels to Hatshepsut and the modern woman are painstakingly evident.
  • Its OK for women to think they are equal to men but quite another thing to say they are better
  • When women assume a role of power, they need to work twice as hard as any man to maintain it
  • To enter a 'man's world' women still try and alter their personalities to fit in