Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hari Ini Hari Kartini...

A change will come in our whole native world—the turning point is fore-ordained; it is coming. But when will it be? That is the great question. --Kartini, 1899.

Today is a special day in Indonesia. April 21st is known as Kartini Day, and commemorates the life of Raden Adjeng Kartini, who is considered a national hero in Indonesia. Across the archipelago children remember the contributions of Kartini by dressing in traditional clothes. Kartini lived from 1879 to 1904 and is seen as a pioneer advocate for womens' rights. Her writings changed the way Indonesian women were perceived in Holland, which at that time controlled the Indonesian archipelago, and also contributed to the ideals of the Indonesian independence movement.

Kartini was caught between two worlds. The first was that of traditional Java, where she was raised as a member of the aristocracy. Kartini was saddened by the inequalities between nobles and common people in Java. She felt that anyone, regardless of birth or status, could be noble. She wrote about the "aristocracy of the mind" and the "aristocracy of the soul". Kartini was also disturbed by the low status of women in traditional Java. Even though her own family was somewhat progressive, she described the challenges she faced as a young girl going to school in a society where only boys could be educated. She writes vividly about how, at the age of 12, she was sequestered "in the box", separated from the outside world until she reached the age of marriage. And she writes poignantly of a feeling of intellectual liberation she felt when she came "out of the box" at age 16. We can see the rigidness of her upbringing in the following passage from Letters:

In order to give you a faint idea of the oppressiveness of our etiquette, I shall mention a few examples. A younger brother or sister of mine may not pass me without bowing down to the ground and creeping upon hands and knees. If a little sister is sitting on a chair, she must instantly slip to the ground and remain with head bowed until I have passed from her sight. If a younger brother or sister wishes to speak to me, it must only be in high Javanese; and after each sentence that comes from their lips they must make a sembah; that is, to put both hands together, and bring the thumbs under the nose.

The second world was that of Europe and the West. Kartini thirsts for knowledge of new ideas that were emanating from Europe at the time. She felt kinship with womens' rights activists in Holland and England and corresponded regularly with friends in Europe (this correspondence is the basis for "Letters..."). At the same time, Kartini laments the prejudices that accompanied the colonial mindset of the Dutch administrators of the East Indies. She tells stories of how Javanese natives were treated as second-class people and even as animals by colonial officials; in some cases Javanese were forced to "kiss the feet" of the Dutch.

Kartini's struggle to make sense of these often contradictory spheres is reflected in her writings. She is at pains to reconcile her vision for a new world with her attachments and obligations to the society of which she was a product. "Have I the right to break the hearts of those who have given me nothing but love and kindness my whole life long, and who have surrounded me with the tenderest care?", she asks. She questions authority, custom, and tradition. She contemplates religion and faith. We can see her despair and her hope. Her writings provide a window into the past, detailing colonial institutions and the relationship between the Javanese and the Dutch.

We can learn a lot from Kartini. Her writings teach show that Indonesia and the world in general has made a great deal of progress in a brief century. But we can also see that there is still work to be done to ensure freedom, liberty, and justice for all people. And while her life was short, her impact has been profound. She was a but a single person, but she had the curiosity to observe the world around her and the courage to challenge the way things were.

Sources and for further reading:

Raden Adjeng Kartini and Hildred Geertz. 1992. Letters of a Javanese Princess. University Press of America.

Portions of the aforementioned book are available online at

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