Every year on 21 April, Indonesians celebrate Kartini Day in commemoration of Raden Ajeng Kartini who fought for emancipation, specifically Indonesian women’s rights to education.
The celebration of her struggle is often commemorated by school children and adults alike by holding fashion shows and cooking competitions. But is this enough? Has the essence of Kartini’s struggle been lost?
- Kartini Day was first established by President Sukarno on 2 May, 1964, when he also conferred on her the title of National Hero of Independence.
- Some of us might ask, why Kartini? Many have contributed to an independent Indonesia and deserve to be recognised as icons for Indonesian women. For example, Cut Nyak Dhien, Cut Meutia or Admiral Malahayati from Aceh; Dewi Sartika from West Java; and Martha Christina Tiahahu from Maluku. So why is Kartini the icon for women’s empowerment in Indonesia?
- As Acehnese women, we may look for tendentious reasons in reply, such as “History has been written by the victors,” as Winston Churchill says. Having said that, there are other nuances that differentiate Kartini from the rest. While others fought using weapons, Kartini fought using literature.
Reading and writing
- Kartini was born in Jepara, Central Java on 21 April, 1879. Her father was a Javanese nobleman named Raden Mas Adipati Ario Sosroningrat and her mother was Ngasirah, a common woman. Kartini is the fifth of 11 children, and the oldest daughter, from her biological mother and her stepmother. As the child of a nobleman, she attended Europe Lagere school (ELG).
- At school she learned to speak Dutch. Kartini was known as a diligent reader, and even after she was forced to marry at a young age, she confined herself to a room and spent time reading books, magazines and newspapers and writing letters. Through this, she identified differences between the lives of European women and the women in her country and was inspired to improve the lives of women in her country.
- Her reading included Semarang De Locomotief newspaper and Leestrommel magazine which discussed diverse themes such as culture, science and politics.
- Her literacy activities resulted in letters of correspondence with Ms Zeehandelaar, who inspired Door Duisternis tot Licht, which Armijn Pane translates to Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang, or From Darkness into Light.
- Kartini’s views are in line with the Islamic principles of equality of women and men. In The Gender Equality Argument: The Perspective of the Qur’an, Nasaruddin Umar mentions that there are at least four arguments that can be used as a basis for equality between women and men. They are arguments from: equality of origin, equality in obligations and rights, equality in education, and equality in law.
- Kartini’s thoughts on emancipation are very much influenced by her knowledge of Islam. Islam respects women and does not restrain them. Men are not superior to women. Islam is present to liberate women and release them from oppression.
Against the ‘tyranny of tradition’
- Kartini’s history is a story of a woman’s resistance against the ‘tyranny of tradition’ which looks down on women as the weaker sex, which was passed on in literature. Again, literacy! Through her letters, Kartini voiced her concerns about the condition of women who were being left behind in education, culture and politics. The question now is how are the Indonesian Kartini of today faring?
- According to a 2015 report by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture, 6.2 million Indonesians remain illiterate. Others (Keller, 2015) say the figure is 8.5 million. The majority of this number are women living in densely populated areas. Also, a 2016 report compiled by Central Connecticut State University placed Indonesia’s literacy ranking at 60th place out of 61 nations studied.
- Remembering Kartini should not be limited to fashion shows or parades, but should consider her spirit and intelligent thinking. Hopefully Kartini can inspire women to continue to fight for their dreams and the dignity of women.
- This weekend was a busy day for kindergarten students and for their grandmothers at their various women’s organisations: wearing kebaya all day, entering Dimas Diajeng competitions, decorating tumpeng platters, painting and coloring, and holding discussions. Men were no less excited. As a sign of emancipation, the husbands joined the cooking competitions, making fried rice and sambal.
- Eni Pamuji Rahayu, a teacher at Ngablak Primary School in Sleman, Yogyakarta, was also busy. The schoolgirls were wearing kebaya, complete with makeup like adults, and their male friends drew on a mustaches. They held colouring festivals and gift-wrapping contests.
- “This is just to remind the children of how Kartini once fought. The important thing is that they understand the spirit and the struggle.”
The kebaya tradition
- The tradition of wearing kebaya on Kartini Day is understandable, according to Ifa Aryani, director of the Women and Children Studies Institute (LSPPA) in Yogyakarta, however it is not enough. “Do not let the excitement of wearing kebaya all day cloud the true essence of Kartini’s struggle, which is equal rights for women,” she says.
- The kebaya tradition on Kartini Day, Ifa explained, emerged during the New Order period, when 21 April was celebrated with the message that women should imitate Kartini. However, she adds, as a woman activist, what needs to be understood is the spirit of her struggle. For example, how she expressed her thoughts through her writing.
- “That women have the same rights as men to be educated. That’s the most important thing. Women’s bodily autonomy is realised by women getting out of confinement, out of tradition, to create better things. This is not just about emancipation, but how women can make changes,” said Ifa. “Reading Karini’s letters is more important than a kebaya fashion show.”
Understanding Kartini’s struggle
- Dr Adib Sofia, an Aisyiah activist, admits that she too is part of the tradition of kebaya on Kartini Day. She sat at kindergarten in the mid-80s also dressed up in kebaya. Now, her daughter is doing the same thing. She claims this indicates that there has been no improvement in how Kartini is perceived.
- “The meaning of Kartini’s struggle is being limited to visual symbols, not the struggle. Last year there was a discount on household appliances advertised with a photo of Kartini. This is a paradox. Kartini encouraged us to expand our work beyond the home and kitchen,” she said.
- Adib invites people to place Kartini’s struggle beyond physical appearance. Kindergarten children, she believes, especially girls, should be encouraged to get to know the many professions that they can pursue later in life.