Re-writing Legacy; Repeating Human Attitudes


Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904) was born to aristocracy in Mayong village near Jepara, a town located in the center of the island of Java, an island then controlled by Holland as part of the Netherlands Indies (now Indonesia). A man of some modern attitudes, her father allowed her to attend Dutch elementary school along with her brothers. The schools were open only to Europeans and to sons of wealthy Javanese. Due to the advantages of her birth and her intellectual inclination, Kartini became one of the first native women allowed to learn to read and write in Dutch.

Despite her father’s permission to allow her a primary education, by Islamic custom and a Javanese tradition known as pingit, all girls, including Kartini, were forced to leave school at age 12 and stay home to learn homemaking skills. Even her status among the upper class could not save her from this tradition of discrimination against women; marriage was expected of her. This was despite the fact that for its part, the Dutch Education Department had finally given permission for R.A. Kartini to study in Batavia. At the age of 24, she was married to a man twice her age who already had three wives.

From 1900 to 1904 during Kartini’s stay at home from school according to the dictates of Javanese tradition; she found an outlet for her beliefs in letters she wrote in Dutch and sent to her friends in Holland. Kartini was unique in that she was a woman who was able to write; what set her apart even further was her rebellious spirit and her determination to air concerns that no one, not even men, were publicly discussing. In her letters, she protested against the treatment of women in Java, the practice of polygamy, and of the Dutch suppression of the island’s native population.

Kartini was not proud of being set apart from her countrymen as one of the privileged few of the aristocracy. In her writings she described two types of nobility, one of mind and one of deed. Simply being born from a noble line does not make one great; a person needs to do great deeds for humanity to be considered noble. In her letters, she wrote about the plight of Javanese citizens and the need to improve conditions through education and progress. In one of her letters, she described her wish to study further and make education accessible to all women. As Nursyahbani Katjasungkana commented in the Jakarta Post, “Kartini knew and expounded the concept that women can make choices in any aspect of their lives, careers, and personal matters.”

Despite the marriage, in 1903 Kartini was able to take a step forward towards achieving women’s equality by opening a school for girls. At this time, Kartini also published the paper “Teach the Javanese.”
Although, Kartini’s enthusiasm at educating Indonesian girls was short lived. On September 17, 1904, at the age of 25, she died while giving birth to her son.

In 1911 a collection of her Dutch letters were published posthumously, first in Java and then in Holland as kartini-door-duisternis-tot-lightDoor Duisternis tot Licht: Gedachten Over en Voor Het Javanese Volk (‘From Darkness to Light: Thoughts about and on Behalf of the Javanese People’). The book was then translated into several languages, including French, Arabic, and Russian, and in 1920 was translated by Agnes Louis Symmers into English as Letters of a Javanese Princess. In 1922 Armijn Pane finally translated the book into the Javanese language under the title Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (‘After Darkness, Light Is Born’) based on a verse found both in the Bible and the Qur’an in which God calls people out of the darkness and into the light. Recently, Kartini’s granddaughter, Professor Haryati Soebadio, re-translated the letters and published them as Dari Gelap Menuju Cahaya, meaning ‘From Darkness into Light.’(1)

Kartini’s letters spurred her nation’s enthusiasm for nationalism and garnered sympathy abroad for the plight of Javanese women. Syrian writer Aleyech Thouk translated ‘From Darkness into Light’ into Arabic for use in her country. Many of Kartini’s admirers established a string of “Kartini schools” across the island of Java, the schools are funded through private contributions. Kartini’s beliefs and letters inspired many women and effected actual change in her native Java. Taking their example, women from other islands in the archipelago, such as Sumatra, also were inspired to push for change in their regions. The 1945 Constitution establishing the Republic of Indonesia guaranteed women the same rights as men in the areas of education, voting rights, and economy.

In Indonesia, April 21, Kartini’s birthday, is a national holiday that recognizes her as a pioneer for women’s rights and emancipation. However, ambiguities in Kartini’s life and writings permit contemporary Indonesian leaders to shape her legacy to suit their goals. After 1965, the New Order Indonesian Government promoted Hari Ibu (Mother) Kartini or Mother Kartini Day. For that occasion, young girls are to wear tight, fitted jackets, batik shirts, elaborate hairstyles and ornate jewelry to school, supposedly replicating Kartini’s attire but in reality wearing an invented and more constricting ensemble than she ever did.

Thus Kartini now validates the New Order policy of State Ibuism, “which defines women as appendages and companions to their husbands, as procreators of the nation, as mothers and educators of children, as housekeepers, and as members of Indonesian society – in that order. In neither colonial nor independent Indonesia is there room for the Kartini who proclaimed “I long to be free, to be allowed, to be able to make myself independent, to be dependent on no one else, …. to never have to marry.”(2)

Mother she never got a chance to be as she died during child-birth, girl she was with dreams of emancipation and uplifting lives of Javanese women, legacy she is today molded to agendas she never stood for.

Kartini’s story has reflections in every country, culture and religion through history and today. When will we break out from the vicious cycle of human attitudes and political agendas and let everyone live their true potential? How many more Kartinis’ would we need to teach us the same lesson?

Repeating the past won’t create a new future; it will but take us back!



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