“In my mind and heart,” a young woman read. She took a deep breath and went on, “… I do not wholly live in the Dutch East Indies; I feel like I live in an era with my white sisters in the far away West.”
The young woman stood on a stage in a dimly lit room. In her hands were letters written more than 100 years ago. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and violin, university student Winner Fransisca read excerpts from a letter written by Kartini, an Indonesian heroine, in May 1899 to a penpal in the Netherlands.
Activists, academics and artists on Thursday read Kartini’s letters to remember her ideas that inspired the women’s emancipation movement in Indonesia.
Kartini, usually referred to by her title Raden Ajeng, was born into an aristocratic Javanese family on April 21, 1879. Her father was a district head of Jepara in Central Java. Her mother was his father’s first wife. During the Dutch colonial era, polygamy was a common practice.
Her father being a Javanese aristocrat working for the colonial administration, Kartini had the privilege to attend school, which exposed her to Western ideas and feminist thinking. She was fluent in Dutch, an unusual accomplishment for Javanese women at the time.
Kartini attended school until the age of 12. Under the old Javanese tradition, she was secluded at home to prepare for marriage. During this seclusion period, she wrote letters to her friends abroad. The letters were compiled into a book called “Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang” (“Out of Darkness Into Light”) and published posthumously.
In 1964, she was declared an Indonesian national heroine by President Sukarno and her birthday was subsequently named Kartini Day, which is celebrated annually.
During President Suharto’s New Order era, however, the image of Kartini was reconfigured from that of a radical feminist to a domestic wife.
“We read her letters to remind Indonesia that Kartini Day is not about women and girls wearing kebayas and batik with elaborate hairstyles supposedly replicating Kartini’s attire,” said Okky Madasari, an award-winning novelist and one of the event organizers. “It’s about remembering her ideas and what she fought for.”
Okky and Faiza Mardzoeki, playwright and director of the Purple Institute, held an event reading Kartini’s letters on Thursday to commemorate Kartini Day, which takes place today.
Kartini dedicated her life to improving the conditions of Javanese women, who had low social status, through education. But Kartini’s concerns spanned beyond women’s empowerment. Not only did she want indigenous women to reach their dreams, attain freedom and obtain legal equality, she also criticized the education system and mainstream religion.
Kartini, through her letters, protested against any obstacle for the development of Javanese women. When her parents arranged her marriage to a district head of Rembang — who was 25 years older than her and already had three wives — at first she resisted, but eventually agreed to appease her ailing father. She later added one condition: She could establish a school for women.
“Kartini was a survivor, she was a victim of feudalism. She fought with her pen, wrote and established a school,” Faiza said.
Women and marriage
“I do not respect Javanese men. How could I admire a married man who, if bored with the mother of his children, could bring another woman into his house and marry her legally under Islamic law?” author Firliana Purwanti recited a passage from another of Kartini’s letter.
One hundred and thirty four years since the birth of Kartini, her progressive ideas still ring true to the ears of Indonesian women today. Despite marrying a man who was already married, Kartini was staunchly against polygamy.
Last year, former Garut district head Aceng Fikri married a 17-year-old girl to be his second wife. After only four days, he divorced her via text message.
“A lot of men still practice polygamy, although since about 100 years ago, it has been seen as unfair,” Faiza said.
Women who are in a polygamous relationship are also prone to suffering psychological abuse, she added.
Sri Nurherwati, the head of the recovery system development commission of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), said such cases were a result of patriarchal elements of Indonesia’s culture and legal system.
In another case involving a public official, the wife of Magelang deputy mayor Joko Prasetyo, Siti Rubaidah, reported her husband to the police in January this year after he repeatedly hit her.
Sri said that despite the existence of laws against domestic violence, it was often treated as a personal issue rather than a public one.
“There are hardly any reports because of the imbalanced relationship between the husband and wife,” she said. “Wives are often ignored and domestic violence is often considered a family matter.”
Indonesia’s efforts to empower women have also been hampered by weak implementation of laws and legislation designed to promote women’s rights.
Additionally, there are exsisting laws and bylaws that work against women. Komnas Perempuan in 2012 released a report that found 282 bylaws that discriminated against women. Among them were bylaws that prohibited women from dressing in certain ways and going out late at night.
Indonesia is also struggling in the women’s development sector as the deadline for reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches. Under the MDGs, the country’s maternal mortality rate must decrease to 102 per 100,000 by 2015.
Based on the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Development Index, Indonesia’s current maternal mortality rate of 228 per 100,000 remains one of the highest in Southeast Asia.
Limited access to hospitals and clinics has been blamed for the difficulties in reducing the maternal mortality rate by exposing women to higher risks of infection.
Kartini herself died only four days after giving birth to a child in 1904, a year after her marriage.
Educating the people
“Providing a good education is like the government putting a lantern in the hands of the people, so they can find their own way…” actress Tiga Setia Gara voiced Kartini’s desire for decent education for her people.
Prior to her untimely death at the age of 25, Kartini founded a school for young girls; she obtained permission to open the first all-girls school in the nation. Kartini realized that education is everyone’s right, but unfortunately not every child in Indonesia today has access to quality education.
Although 95 percent of Indonesian children are enrolled in elementary school, according to a report released by UNDP, the country’s education system is routinely criticized for its emphasis on rote learning rather than creative thinking.
From charges of setting an irrelevant curriculum to corruption allegations, wide-scale cheating in the national exams and substandard facilities, Indonesia’s national education system has long been a target of criticism.
Indonesia Corruption Watch has sounded the alarm over the alleged misuse of the education budget.
“Based on ICW’s observations on corruption in the education sector in 2012, there were at least 40 corruption cases uncovered,” researcher Siti Juliantari said.
She attributed the high corruption rate in the education sector to lack of transparency and accountability and schools in planning their spending.
Kartini’s unfinished business
Kartini’s legacy has remain strong until today as Indonesian women are still trying to make their way through a male-dominated society.
However, Indonesian women, to a point, are better off today than they were in Kartini’s time. Women now can run for political office but there are still much work to be done.
A number of women on top are sadly entangled in corruption cases, names such as Angelina Sondakh, Miranda Goeltom and Hartati Murdaya spring into mind. And ironically enough, a Semarang anti-corruption judge Kartini Marpaung was sentenced to eight years in jail, just days before Kartini Day.
Gender equality does not come automatically. It has taken hundreds of years to reach the point where Indonesian women are today. Young girls want to follow Kartini’s footsteps but they tend to overlook her ideas and are drawn to her oversimplified symbol. The war for women’s empowerment is not over and the fight to create a country without injustice and discrimination continues.
Indonesian women are still struggling to practice what Kartini advocated in her letters, but as we are reminded by her letters: “If we want to attain a perfect civilization, then the maturation of intelligence and conscience must go side by side.”