By Andrew Billen
The Ascent of Woman
Even the most overpaid enemy of wimmin’s herstory will earn his money if he manages to ridicule Dr Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman. Here, last night, was Foreman on Assyrian law in the 12th century BC. “In my opinion,” she said, “this is a harsh society where the law has become a charter for male oppression.” She had just told us that among the 112 laws recorded on a surviving tablet were death penalties for abortion and adultery, and permission for the wife of a rapist herself to be raped in punishment.
I loved “in my opinion”, not because it was a rhetorical flourish but because other evidence indeed suggested Assyrian women enjoyed rather more freedom than the tablet’s engravers would have liked. Although the first part of this new history of women strove to counter existing narratives of incessant female oppression or, perhaps worse, female irrelevance, it was never strident itself. “It is important not to prejudge the veil”, Foreman even said, having traced the headscarf, the wimple and the nun’s habit back to the Assyrians too (2,000 years before Islam). It gave, she pointed out, Assyrian women the chance to be in public. Repack episode one and you have a show called The Veil Unveiled.