In both the written histories and the archaeological record, accounts of the lives of Sogdian women are relatively scarce. Women appear for the most part as one of two types: a dancing girl or a wife. As is the case in most pre-modern societies, the societal function of a woman is either a source of pleasure or a source of offspring, and these roles of course overlap. There is plenty of evidence that women in this society were seen as commodities to be bought, sold, traded, pawned, or given in marriage as diplomacy required. That said, there is also evidence that Sogdian women were afforded certain legal rights and protections that were not found in contemporary societies.
The image of the Sogdian dancing girl, found frequently in Tang poetry, portrays a romantic interpretation of what was in fact the commodification of young girls. A contract dated to 639 CE, uncovered among the Turfan documents, documents the sale of a young Sogdian girl to a Chinese Monk at the price of 120 Sasanian silver coins (Hansen 2003). While there is no way for us to know what became of this particular girl, oasis towns along the Silk Road were set up for the needs of traveling merchants, including doctors, innkeepers, and prostitutes (Hansen 2015, 106).
A document fragment uncovered in Dunhuang demonstrates that the institution of marriage offered some protection to women, if only due to the fact that they were considered personal property. This fragment contains a petition to the governor of Dunhuang concerning the practice of abducting women from lower social strata for wives. The governor rules in this case that it is not permitted to abduct married women, prompting the petitioner to ask whether he might, in that case, abduct an unmarried woman. Unfortunately, the governor’s response is not included in the surviving fragment (Whitfield 2001, 185).
An earlier document found outside of Dunhuang shows us that marriage was no guarantee of security for a Sogdian woman. Letter III of the Sogdian ancient letters tells the story of Miwnay, a Sogdian woman abandoned in Dunhuang by her husband, Nanaidhat. Dating to 311 CE, Nanaidhat’s disappearance may have been related to ongoing turmoil in the region, but it is clear Miwnay holds him accountable for his misfortunes since his departure. Miwnay and her daughter Shayn, without a male head of household, are left destitute: “I live wretchedly, without clothing, without money…I depend on charity from the priest” (Whitfield 2001, 185). While the circumstances around the disappearance of Nanaidhat are not known, it is clear that two women left on their own had very few options as far as providing for their basic needs.
A marriage contract dated to 710 CE provides some insight into the nature of contractual marriage in Sogdiana. The marriage agreement between Ot-tegin and Chat presents strikingly similar obligations for the husband and the wife, noting that she will “always conform to his wellbeing and obey his orders” and also that he will “treat Chat as his dear and respected wife…as a lady possessing authority in his own house” (Iranica Online 2016). The language is striking for the balance between the duties of the two parties, which may be a result of the relative social standing of Ot-tegin and Chat. While Chat is identified as the daughter of Wiyus, Prince of Nawekat, Ot-tegin is not introduced as a prince. This may account for the degree of autonomy granted to Chat in this agreement (Iranica Online 2016).
Of particular interest is the portion of this marriage contract that lays out the conditions for a potential divorce. The contract reveals a strict sense of reciprocity between the two parties: husband and wife are each permitted to end the marriage under the same circumstances. Under these circumstances, the party ending the marriage is required only to return what they received in the initial marriage agreement: in Ot-tegin’s case, the dowry, and in Chat’s case, the gifts from Ot-tegin (Hansen 2015, 133). Again, the strict reciprocity may be a result of Chat’s status relative to Ot-tegin. However, it may also show us the ways in which a mercantile society extended the practice of negotiating and haggling into the realm of legal marriage arrangements, allowing women the possibility of negotiating a better deal for themselves.
We can also find examples of women with surprisingly high levels of autonomy in the records uncovered in the tombs at Astana. The tomb of a moneylender named Zuo Chongxi (d. 673) contained fifteen intact contracts that were buried with him. One of these, between Zuo Chongxi and Zhang Haihuan, designates Haihuan’s mother as a “big woman”, a title which meant that her name appeared as head of household in the Tang official government records (Hansen 2003, 39). Census records for the period of Tang occupation reveal that between 16 and 30 percent of households in Turfan were headed by women (Hansen 2003, 39). This number may have been inflated due to the fact that women paid lower taxes than men. However, in a society based around the activities of merchants traveling for business, it is not entirely surprising that women would be left in charge while their husbands were on the road (Hansen 2003, 39).
The recent discovery of the tombs of Sogdians in China show us an outside perspective on Sogdian women. The tombs of eight officials identified as Central Asians living in China are richly decorated with scenes from the lives of those entombed, providing a wealth of visual information about Sogdians living abroad in China (Lerner 2005, 1). The depictions of the men in these tombs show them always in Sogdian attire. Their wives, however, are always depicted in Chinese attire.
This may have been in an effort to distinguish their wives from the general population of Sogdian women in China, who were perceived by the Chinese as being associated with entertainment and dancing (Lerner 2001, 21). Tomb figurines found in Astana depict Central Asian women in low-cut fashions alongside more modestly dressed Chinese women, showing us that typical Sogdian female attire may have been considered inappropriate among the Chinese in Turfan (Lerner 2005, 35).
All of these documents and archaeological finds together depict a society in which women were afforded varying degrees of autonomy. Not surprisingly, women of higher social status seem to have had more say in their affairs. Women of lower social status, and particularly those who were not married, may have been subject to predatory practices and the loss of personal freedom. While it seems that those outside Sogdiana understood Sodian women as entertainers and dancers, it seems that at least some Sogdian women had legal rights and protections, and in some cases were solely responsible for the financial matters of the household.