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Challenging Power through Gender Representation

What does the androgynous depiction of Hatshepsut—and its subsequent destruction—tell us about the role of gender in Ancient Egypt?

Jun 2, 2022

Listen to the conversation, or read the full transcript below.

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An ancient Egyptian seated statue of Hatshepsut in limestone, with a bright yellow ovular spotlight shape behind the figure in the background

Seated Statue of Hatshepsut

ca. 1479–1458 B.C.

This limestone statue is a life-size representation of Queen Hatshepsut as a king. Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Thutmose I, an important and inspiring King of that time period. She lacked a male descendent, so she became the Queen Regent of a boy King, her nephew, Thutmose III. Seven years into that regency, she crowned herself King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and she ruled over Egypt for around 20 years. Throughout her rule, Hatshepsut represented herself with royal titles, traditional regalia, and both feminine and masculine physical attributes.

Read more about the artwork


Aude Semat: My name is Aude Semat. I’m assistant curator in the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My focus is Egyptian artworks and images made during the New Kingdom, and in the early Eighteenth Dynasty in particular.

Mona Eltahawy: My name is Mona Eltahawy. My pronouns are she, her, hers. And I’m a feminist author, and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the feminist newsletter Feminist Giant.

Semat: So we are looking at a life-size statue made out of limestone and representing Queen Hatshepsut as a king. Hatshepsut was an Egyptian ruler who lived and ruled during the first three decades of the fifteenth century B.C. She was the daughter of King Thutmose I, an important and inspiring King of that time period. And Hatshepsut was lacking a male descendent, she was mother of a single daughter, Princess Neferure. So she became the Queen Regent of a boy king, Thutmose III, her nephew, actually. And she ended up after seven years into that regency crowning herself King of Upper and Lower Egypt, so acting then as a co-ruler with Thutmose III but in fact, holding the reins of the country. And she ruled over Egypt for around twenty years.

Through the span of more than three millennia of ancient Egyptian history, which is a long time, very few women actually managed to reign as a Pharaoh. And that’s why she fascinated so much and continues to fascinate people, whether they are historians or just interested in history.

Eltahawy: I’m quite shocked and embarrassed that as an Egyptian it took me so long to recognize the challenges to gender that Hatshepsut represents. Because, you know, as an Egyptian, I should have known, but I think this also speaks to the ways that gender and representation and who owns history really goes into the making of history and the ways that we look at historical figures, which is one of the reasons why I’m really excited about our conversation today. As a child I didn’t know a lot about ancient Egypt because my family left Egypt when I was seven. We moved to London and, you know, I knew about Pharaohs and pyramids and all of that, but I didn’t study ancient Egyptian history and I didn’t go to Hatshepsut’s temple until much later in life.

Semat: So Hatshepsut here is shown sitting on a low-back throne with her hands lying flat on her thighs. In the statue, Hatshepsut is identified as a King by her royal attributes and also by her titles and epithets. And when we look at her, we can see that her anatomy is only allusively feminine, with barely perceptible breasts and a very slim torso. So that’s what makes this statue interesting, because we know that Hatshepsut was a woman but here she’s represented with masculine characters.

Sometime during the regency she started to represent herself in the roles normally restricted to the King. And then after that she started to use royal titles, traditional regalia, but with a female anatomy and then a fully masculine image that we can see especially in the statues of her temple in Deir el-Bahri.

Eltahawy: Well what I love about this statue of Hatshepsut is it’s a very androgynous statue. You’re really seeing “the King herself” come forth and it really makes you stop and ask, ‘what does that title, “the King herself,” mean in the ways that it challenges the patriarchy back then and in the ways that it must challenge patriarchy today?’

I first came across that title, “the King herself,” when I began to read more about Hatshepsut as I was preparing to shave off all of my hair. So this was during kind of the height of the pandemic when I had had bright red hair for about eight years. I had gifted myself red hair and tattoos after I survived an attack by Egyptian riot police in Egypt in November of 2011, during the year of our revolution. They broke my left arm and they broke my right hand and sexually assaulted me and I was detained for twelve hours, blindfolded, interrogated, it was a very traumatic time. And so that then made me reckon finally with what power means when I challenge gender as a feminist. And I kept seeing this title, “the King herself” and I thought, ‘wow, how wonderful that in one title that’s exactly what Hatshepsut did!’

Semat: As an Egyptologist my main interest is ancient Egyptian visual culture: the how and the why behind images. So in an ancient society where kingships have been defined at the time for several centuries, in order to rule, she had to wear the mantle of kingship. And that was a male one. And so that is interesting because when you look at her statues, even the ones that are called masculine representation of Hatshepsut, she’s depicted with a definitely male body, but the inscriptions often refer to her as a woman. Even her name, Hatshepsut, means ‘the foremost of noblewomen,’ so that always stayed like that, it was never masculinized.

Semat: If we take a closer look at the white Hatshepsut again, we can notice numerous damages visible all over the statue. Starting from the bottom, so on the edges of the pedestal and the throne, on the forearms and the hands, on the belt. You can also notice that the nose is partly missing and that the uraeus, the rearing cobra on the brow, was carefully removed.

What we are looking at is a statue reconstructed after it was found. And if we look at where those fragments were found, it tells us a lot about what actually happened to that statue and to a lot of Hatshepsut statues. So the Egyptian Expedition of The Metropolitan Museum found those fragments in a deep quarry located north of the causeway leading to the Temple of Hatshepsut. And they were found with other fragments of statues of Hatshepsut. And the most complete examples were sent to Cairo, to the Egyptian Museum. And fragments of the statue given to The Metropolitan Museum were reconstructed later in New York.

And so when we look at all those fragments of statues found in that quarry, actually we can see two different things. That first, the statues were altered, to remove the uraei, so the cobra on the brow. This alteration deprived the ruler of the deity’s protection. And then the statues were removed from the temple of Deir el-Bahri and they were dumped near two holes. And so there is a pattern of destruction that shows that those statues were systematically attacked at the neck and the shoulders. Sometimes also on the face and at the hands and the feet were hacked on most of them. And the inscription remained. So it’s really the image itself that was the subject of these violent acts. And this was done by her successor, Thutmose III. We also know that Hatshepsut seems to have paved the way for a daughter to succeed to her, which didn’t happen. And so that could explain the rejection of the idea of female kingship leading to the proscription of Hatshepsut.

Eltahawy: It’s fascinating to hear Aude tell us what could have happened and why. Because it brings to mind for me just the ways that patriarchy, historically and in more contemporary times, insists on erasing anyone who challenges the way that patriarchy maintains its grip on power. So a historical figure that comes to mind for me as an Egyptian is the feminist Doria Shafik, who in the 1950s lead 1500 women in storming the Egyptian Parliament to demand the right to vote and to run for office in Egypt.

Now, after the war over the Suez Canal, Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power and did not let go. And we’ve been under military rule in Egypt effectively since 1952. So after the Suez Canal war, Doria Shafik began to speak out against Gamal Abdel Nasser more and more. She began to call him a tyrant, she began to call him a dictator. And to punish her he shut down her feminist collective, he shut down her feminist magazine, Bint el-Nil, he put her under house arrest and he erased her from the public record. And after eighteen years of house arrest, Doria Shafik died by suicide.

In more contemporary times, I think of the insistence—and we’re in the United States and I’m Egyptian American, so now I speak as an American—I think of the hysteria by the right wing in the United States who have a very, very fixed notion of gender and the gender binary. And I think of the hysterical hatred that they have unleashed against anyone who challenges the gender binary, especially trans and non-binary young people, and children, and and athletes across the United States. And I think of the ways that they’re trying to erase them.

So as an Egyptian American, when I listen to Aude speak about the way that Hatshepsut was erased, I think of the ways that patriarchy insists on erasing anyone who challenges it, be it the King herself, a ruler, who was the most powerful person for twenty years in the ancient world, or people with much less power today who are much more vulnerable to being erased in ways that we are not seeing, and that we must pay attention to.

Semat: This destruction is actually what I found the most interesting when looking at this period, being an art historian. That in ancient Egypt any named or depicted being or thing was seen as symbolically and magically real. Meaning that royal images such as the statues of Hatshepsut were alive and magically effective. So with that in mind, once you look at how Egyptians conceived images, destroying images is definitely a strong and meaningful act. So these destructions were intentional, of course, and they were meant to incapacitate her spirit. Because statues were receptacles of what the Egyptians called the ka and the ba, so the life force and the soul, or the spirit of someone. 

Eltahawy: You know I have a tattoo of the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, in which she has that cobra and that crown of power. And I have it tattooed on one of the arms that was broken by Egyptian riot police. And I have a scar on my left arm where I had surgery because they broke the bone on that arm so badly that a surgeon had to go in there and fix it and make it straight again. So that scar on my arm reminds me of the cracks in that statue of Hatshepsut. And those cracks are a reminder of the danger that we pose to patriarchy when we challenge the parameters that it uses to confine us.

Semat: When we look at this period, we should not forget that despite or because of this systematic destruction of these statues by Thutmose III, these statues have been on view in Cairo and in New York and also in Deir el-Bahri, now that the temple is being restored, for much longer time that they had been at Deir el-Bahri in ancient times, so during Hatshepsut’s rule for twenty years. Which is an interesting twist of fate.

But it’s really interesting to see that the material is still very alive, in a way, or is getting another life through new interpretations. And I really also enjoy listening to what you’ve been saying as just a woman, understanding that the work never ends to question our own approach and see things a bit differently.

Eltahawy: For me as a feminist who does deal with gender, it’s important to me that we have a feminist role model like Hatshepsut because for all the great things we we hear about women in ancient Egypt, it still was a very patriarchal society. Feminism is still quite a recent, modern ideology, so it’s important for the feminist in me, for feminist-Mona, that Hatshepsut is a woman who was the the most powerful person for twenty years during this very patriarchal time. But it’s also really important for me in challenging patriarchy that we open ourselves up to what the King herself means in challenging what a man is, and what a woman is, and what women and men are allowed.


About the contributors

Assistant Curator, Department of Egyptian Art

Mona Eltahawy

Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Feminist Giant


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