Students Speak: Letters From Kartini
May 27, 2009 § 3 Comments
Letters From Kartini – by Nia, a high school junior.
Schools were named after her, books were written about her, songs were composed in her name, even a national holiday was dedicated to her; Kartini was the Indonesian symbol of women empowerment and self-determination.
I remember when I was still in elementary school, we had annual celebration of Hari Kartini (Kartini Day) where the students had to dress up in traditional clothing from different provinces and walk down a runaway. We sang her songs and went around trying to guess which province our clothing came from. Although the students seemed oblivious of the tradition’s relevance to the celebration of Kartini and saw it just as another free day, I thought it was intended to remind the students of the diversity we have in our country, which Kartini truly embraced.
Raden Ajeng Kartini was born in 1879 into an aristocrat Javanese family, in time when Java was still part of the Dutch colony. During this time, women and girls received little or no education; only some and those with the status were allowed to go a Dutch school. Kartini’s father, Raden Mas Sosroningrat, who was the mayor of Jepara, allowed her to go to a Dutch elementary school with her brothers. Here she met her Dutch friends and learned Dutch, which was highly unusual for Indonesian women. Kartini continued her education until she was twelve when her father prohibited her from continuing her studies. According to Javanese tradition, daughters must be kept at home after finishing elementary education. A noble girl was not allowed to have a higher education; she had to be secluded at home. This was a common practice among Javanese nobility, to prepare young girls for their marriage. The girls were not allowed to go out at all until they were married, when authority over them was transferred to their husbands.
Kartini was kept home for four years, she poured out her despair through letters to her friends in Holland. In her letter to her friend Stella Zeehanderlaar, she explained how she was not proud of her privileged status. A “modern girl,” in Kartini’s definition, is proud, independent, self-reliant, enthusiastic and warm. Most importantly, one who works for her own happiness and the greater good of humanity. The majority of her letters protest the tendency of Javanese culture to impose obstacles for the development of women. She wanted women to have the freedom to learn and study.
On 8 November 1903, Kartini was married to Raden Adipati Djojoadiningrat. With his permission, she opened the first women elementary school near their home. The school taught women and girls to read and make handicrafts. Kartini’s school was a breakthrough in Indonesian education field. It was the first school open to Indonesians regardless of their status and gender. The school put moral education above the mind’s education.
Sadly, Kartini passed away a year later after giving birth to her first child. Inspired by Kartini, the Van Deventer family, friends of Kartini, established the Kartini Foundation which built schools for women, Sekolah Kartini (Kartini’s School) were established in Semarang in 1912, followed by other women’s schools in Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Malang, Madiun, Cirebon and other areas.
Although now Kartini is merely remembered as the Indonesian feminist who struggled for women equality, I remember her as the brave and intelligent woman who struggled in a society with a tremendously strong intellectual tradition, where women had no voice, even in family affairs. Kartini’s “fight” may not be comparable to the long, hard struggle that American women had to go through to attain their right to vote during the same period of time, but I find it intriguing how Kartini was able to promote women equality and empowerment for all Indonesian women simply through letters. I have not found a single speech that Kartini publicly delivered, but found dozens of letters, even documented in a book, that inspired her friends, young and elder women all over the country to fight for their freedom, starting from getting educated.
Because of Kartini and other heroines who fought for Indonesian independence, like Cut Nyak Dien, Indonesia was able to grow as a country that already had women equality and democracy engrained in her principles. The reason that my grandmother, my mother, and I were able to freely attend school without gender discrimination was because of the courage and confidence that Kartini had for Indonesian women, that we have the power to make a change. Although Indonesia is still considered a “developing” country, I am still proud that the girls in Indonesia have equal amount of rights to receive the same level of education as any other boys. Moreover, even with some traditional norms and economic struggles still fighting against education for girls, it is still relieving to acknowledge that our core foundation as a nation believes that women have the power and voice to make change.