April 21st is a special day in Indonesia. It is Hari Kartini (Kartini’s Day). Many young girls and women dress up in Javanese Kebaya, and talking about women emancipation. Kartini’s day is designated to commemorate the struggles and achievements of Raden Adjeng Kartini, one of Indonesian heroines, hailed as the symbol of Indonesian women’s empowerment during the Dutch colonial era.
It should be noted that before the Dutch colonization, women appeared to have access to high status. Acehnese women in Indonesia would hold high positions in the society and participate in local forces to fight Dutch rule, while many Javanese women became leaders. However, this changed when colonialism took place, particularly in Java.
Kartini was born in Jepara, Indonesia on 21st of April 1879 into an aristocratic family during Dutch colonial era. Until she was 12 years old, Kartini received education in ELS (Europese Lagere School), where she also learned Dutch language. She stopped her formal education at 12 because it was common for girls to be ‘secluded’ in the house as they were going through puberty.
Despite that, she continued learning by herself through books, newspapers and articles, reading them in the garden while being accompanied by her servants. In her independent learning phase, she was then assisted by Marie Ovink-Soer, the wife of a Dutch regent. Marie allowed her to access books in her private library. Her previous Dutch school, ELS also allowed her to communicate with pen pals in the Netherlands. It is through these letters to her pen pals that she was able to exchange ideas about women empowerment, explain about life as women in the Dutch colonial rule, and share her visions for the future of women in her country.
Although she was fascinated with women’s rights in the west, she did not detach herself from either Javanese culture or Islamic values. Different from the notion of modern feminist, Kartini instead stressed that the empowerment of Indonesian women should not simply be separated from their roles of mothers and wives. “It is from women that humans receive their first education”, she wrote in her letter. She also believed that women are the pillars of civilization, because women make the biggest contribution to the advancement of human morality.
Kartini later married Joyodiningrat, the Regent of Rembang. Her husband understood Kartini’s wish, and allowed her to establish a female school in the east gate of Rembang Regency Complex. Kartini died on 17 September 1904 at the age of 25. Inspired by Kartini’s example, Van Deventer family later then established R.A. Kartini Foundation, which built numerous female schools in many different areas, such as in Cirebon, Madiun, Malang, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and many others.
While some may criticize the use of Kartini as a symbolic figure of Indonesian women emancipation, Kartini was not only a champion in her struggle to elevate the status of women in Indonesia, she was also a nationalist figure who played a role in the struggle for independence. She was a thinker and mover. She was not only thinking about justice and women empowerment, but also brought up questions on occupation and nationality. Her realm of thoughts exceeded her time. Her letters which were later compiled in the book entitled, “Out of Dark Comes Light”, showed her curiosity and extensive thoughts on the progress in Indonesia. She was not only a symbol of women, but also a visionary thinker who hoped for the progress of the country. This April, a drama biographical film of her will be screened in cinemas all over Indonesia to mark her birthday this year.
By Muhammad Fathi Rayyan, ASEAN Correspondent from Indonesia