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Feminine Power: The Struggles for Social Recognition
Are women more likely than men to challenge the status quo because they want to
escalate their social ladder or because they are predisposed to be less moral?
Disobedience is an important trait for some characters in ancient society. Two characters
who demonstrate disobedience are Antigone and Tamar. The theme of disobedience is
expressed through the direct interactions that both female characters present with their
male antagonists: Creon and Judah. Antigone defies the laws of Creon in order to give her
dead brother an appropriate burial rite and comply with her moral values. Tamar, on the
other hand, challenges the social system to deceive Judah in order to have a child outside
of marriage. Their courage, power, and the pursuit of rightness have a crucial impact on
the roles of women that underline social inequality in ancient times.
Sophocles? Antigone is a tragic play that depicts femininity. In Greek traditions,
women were often seen as second-class citizens. They were expected to engage in burial
rites because men would refuse to have physical contact with the dead bodies. They
believed that these polluted corpses could make them sick, which can then lead them to
death (Levene, Lecture 8). These actions dehumanized women because they were forced
to do the ?dirty job? that did not correspond to their moral values. Similarly, women were
required to obey the laws established by men. In the text, Creon, the king of Thebes,
emphasizes ?no woman rules me while I live? (40). Athenians believed that women were
not allowed to have a public role, but a private one. Their private role was expected to be
in support of their oikos [households] to protect their family lineage. Antigone is expected
to obey these laws, which in fact she acknowledges when she feels ?forced and shall obey
the men in power? (24). Once she sees herself threatened by Creon?s commands
regarding the prohibition of her brother?s burial, she faces a moral dilemma: challenging 2
the rules of the city to agree with the law of the gods [divine law] or oppressing her moral
values to agree with the laws of society [human law].
However, Antigone?s affection for her brother predicts her rebellion against the
human law. In Sophocles? opening lines, Antigone agonizes her brother?s death that she
says, ?loving, I shall lie with him, yes, with my love one? (24). She believes Creon?s law
of not burying her brother?s corpse is wrong because it can lead to pollution. Greek
traditions suggest that it was important to bury a dead body because it can rest in peace in
a tomb without polluting the environment. Her actions make her seen as an unbelievable
character not only because of her capability to break the law in order to impose her own
law [divine law], but also because of her unconditional love for his brother that seems
like a mother-to-child or a husband-to-wife kind of love. This high intensity of
Antigone?s appreciation for her brother is so bizarre because one would expect her to
convey her affections to Haemon, her fiancé. But nonetheless, she never gets with him on
stage nor does she mention him throughout the play (Levene, Lecture 8) and the reader is
only able to know about their relationship when Ismene, Antigone?s sister, mentions it
toward the end of the story. In addition, one would expect, by Greek traditions, that she
would marry a man to produce offspring and support her oikos. An explanation about
Antigone?s indifference about marrying a man and reproducing descendants is implied
when she says, ?I can have another husband/child if I lost? (40). Antigone is reassured
that she can have as many husbands and children as she wishes. However, she?s limited to
having another brother because both of her parents are dead. Hence, Antigone prioritizes
the importance of her ?own flesh and blood? (23), which characterize her devotion to the
law of gods. 3
In ancient times, women were also deprived of their private roles. This idea is
illustrated in the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis, chapter 38. Tamar becomes an
unmarried widow for two consecutive times after God ordered to end the lives of her expartners for disobeying His policy. However, she finds hope in Shela, Judah?s only son, to
adhere to the law of levirate when he grows up. When the time has come, Tamar sees the
need to engage in a marriage with Shela, but Judah refuses to provide her a child through
his son when he assures that, ?he may die too, just like his brothers? (Gen 38:11). After
waiting for a long time under the scorn of society, Tamar sees herself in a dilemma:
seeking a man to have a child with or living under the mockery of society the rest of her
life. Prudently, she decides to make a plan against Judah, who was her only and close
option, by disguising into a prostitute in order to conceive a child from him. Obviously,
what Tamar does is totally immoral in ancient society. Forcing herself to sleep with a man
just for the sake of bearing a child is an action that makes her an unbelievable character.
One could infer that she does this to humiliate Judah for not complying with his promise,
and eventually, influence him to stay with her even though he has no interest in her.
Though it was essential for a woman to have a child during this time to protect their
lineage, one would expect her to have a formal marriage first and then conceive a child
under traditional norms.
The characters of Antigone and Tamar differ on how they response to their
dilemmas. In Sophocles? Antigone, the idea of men showing inferiority to women was
dishonorable. This is clearly demonstrated by the character of Creon when he comments,
?never let some woman beat us down? (40). In other words, men who are defeated by
women would validate their inferiority to them, which would contrast with the Athenian
idea of female inferiority to men. Antigone resolves her dilemma by not conforming to 4
the traditional female roles to follow their instinct not matter what the human laws state.
On the other hand, in Genesis, Tamar?s situation is actually the opposite. She is able to
resolve her conflict by conforming to the traditional female roles to comply with what
society has taught her is right not matter what her instinct wants. When Judah learns
about her pregnancy, he feels undignified and says. Judah?s defeat is notorious that he
feels minimize by a woman who tricked him to have a child that he did not expect.
Though Antigone might see her action as immoral because it attempts against the law of
the gods, Tamar was able to accomplish her goal when Judah confesses, ?she has been
more righteous than I? (Genesis 38:26) and forgive her from being burned. In ancient
societies, prostitution was not an action that a woman should be involved in. However, it
was very typical for women to appeal to the public in order to gain attention since their
social statuses were similar to that of slaves: their voices would not be heard nor would
they influence political decisions (Levene, Lecture 8).
Antigone and Tamar also show their power over men. In Genesis 38, Tamar is
irritated at Judah because of his double moral about accusing her of an offense that he
originally committed. She notices Shela was already a grown up, but ?she had not been
given to him as his wife? (Gen 38: 14). She defends herself with ingenuity and
perseverance to deceive Judah and make him pay for not complying with his promise of
providing his son for her to have a child. Tamar represents the strength of the weak and
the power of the powerless. She had the choice to follow her marriage traditions, but she
desists. Her desire to have a child was so intense that she defies moral society. This
underlines the importance of motherhood as one of the few sources for women to
participate in ancient societies. For Antigone, who opts to follow the divine laws, not
burying her brother?s corpse would represent a dishonor to the gods that she demands the 5
burial of her beloved one to prevent its corpse to be polluted on earth and allow him to
rest in peace. She stands up with bravery and defies the city?s rules when she says, ?it is
no shame to serve blood relatives? (39). As a result, she is punished. Unlike Tamar, she
agonizes when she says, ?in suffering I?ll see my error clear? (55) and resolve this
problem by ending her life ?hanging by the neck? (65). Both texts depict a danger to the
male-dominated society, which is developed through the disobedience that Antigone and
Tamar possess against human and divine laws.
Antigone and Tamar, as female characters that strived to defeat the status quo,
have an essentially important impact on social inequality. The actions of Antigone about
defying the city?s law that prohibits her brother?s burial shows the courage, integrity, and
power of a non-conforming woman. Likewise, Tamar?s decision to force herself to have a
child outside of marriage by deceiving a man demonstrates a woman capable of
performing untraditional activities to satisfy her own needs. The presentation of Antigone
and Tamar as powerful and righteous women contrast the ancient ideas about women
non-existence in politics and their roles as inferior to men.
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