In defence of Kartini

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“In order to reach our ideals we must lay down many illusions. From the death of young spring blossoms, the strong fruit ripens. It is so with human life- is it not? From the death of young illusions, sometimes mature ones rise up, which ripen and bring forth fruit.” Raden Ajeng Kartini, 20 August 1902.

IO – Kartini wrote those words a year before she died at the age of 25. With them she expressed a wisdom seldom possessed at that age, let alone the ability to express it in such a beautiful, almost poetic prose. But what do Indonesian women actually think of Kartini, our great women’s emancipator? I asked this question to two prominent Indonesian women, their answers were as follows:

Yuli Ismartono, journalist and current editor of the Asia Review, an online newspaper answered, “Kartini is a good symbol of emancipation for women. She did not achieve much in modern day terms but for her time she achieved a lot and later she was recognized as the person who initiated women’s emancipation here. She started a movement that paved the way for women to move forward.”

Business woman, Indra Siagian commented, “Kartini had the courage and the strength to say what she thought during her life time. She had knowledge about women’s emancipation which she expressed – but that was all in fact. So, what she was able to do was only express the inequality women were suffering at that time.”

This is the view currently held by many Indonesian intellectuals namely that she did not achieve much during her life time. She built no schools, she led no nations, she did not obtain higher education for herself and she even accepted polygamy. There were many women who accomplished more: they built schools, they became doctors, they led governments and so on. It is an understandable criticism. Nevertheless, after Kartini died she became a heroine for the Indonesian youth struggling for independence for she not only spoke for women’s emancipation and the right of women to what was then considered a Western education but also for the right of men to obtain such an education. Indirectly, she addressed the issues of equality and freedom. Later during the struggle for independence and for the generations in the first twenty years after independence Kartini was a shining symbol of education and emancipation.

In the late 1970s Prof Harsya W. Bachtiar, a historian at the University of Indonesia began to criticize Kartini as merely being a product of colonialism and that her status as a woman’s emancipator was because the Dutch promoted her and that we Indonesians simply perpetuated their product. Harsya proposed as far more worthy than Kartini  an  Acehnese queen of the 17th century named Ratu Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Johan. She was a highly intelligent woman who spoke several languages and promoted science as well as education for both men and women. During her reign the VOC did not succeed in gaining a foothold in Aceh.

The second woman that Harsya Bachtiar promoted was Siti Aisyah We Tenriolle, a nineteenth century queen of Tenatte or Bone in South Sulawesi who translated the epic Buginese poem La Galigo, led a government focused on stability, prosperity, education and literature and established a school in 1908.

Harsya Bachtiar’s essay was followed by many articles questioning Kartini’s right to be a national hero, especially the leading symbol for women’s education and emancipation. Even feminists such as Julia Suryakusuma and the feminist magazine Jurnal Perempuan questioned the honour bestowed upon Kartini as the nation’s great women’s emancipator.

Raden Ajeng Kartini was a woman of the Javanese nobility  who was born in the town of Mayong, Central Java on the 21st of April 1879. Her father Raden Mas Adipati Ario Sosroningrat, was the Bupati or Regent of Jepara which he ruled  as a Dutch colonial officer. Kartini’s mother, M.A. Ngasirah was not the Regent’s first wife, whom Kartini had to address as “Mother”. This caused psychological stress for both wives as well as for Kartini herself especially during her childhood.

Raden Mas Adipati Ario Sosroningrat was very progressive for his age and allowed his children a Dutch education. Even three of his daughters, Kartini and two of her sisters, Kardinah and Roekmini were allowed to attend the Dutch primary school however, only until the age of 12. When Kartini turned 12 she was “dipingit” or restricted to the house as were most young girls of her class. It also meant giving up further studies.

For Kartini who was a very active young girl this was a great imposition and it depressed her. Her way of dealing with this was to read as many books as she could lay her hands on and to correspond with people, many of whom were amongst the most prominent people as well as the leading intellectuals of the day. Many visitors both foreign and local came to see her father and he allowed her to meet them; included among them were Jacques Henry Abendanon, the Minister of Education, Religion, and Industry in the Dutch East Indies and his wife, Rosa. There were also Henri Hubertus van Kol, a Socialist member of the Dutch parliament and his wife Nellie who was a humanist and feminist writer.  Kartini also corresponded with Hilda de Booy-Boissevain whose father was the director the Algemeene Handelsblad, an important daily at the time and whose husband was adjutant to the Governor General. Kartini not only corresponded and was friends with the leading Dutch figures but also the most prominent Javanese. Through her father she was related to many of the most aristocratic and powerful regents in Java and her own brother R. M. P. Sosrokartono to whom Kartini was very close, became a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and lead translator at the League of Nations. Later her father also allowed her to take trips and make journeys away from the house.

Kartini also became a regular reader of a number of Dutch newspapers and magazines including the Dutch newspaper “De Locomotif,’first  published in Semarang in 1845 and led by Pieter Brooshooft, an ethical political activist. It was originally named Semarangsch Nieuws en Advertentieblad but one of the most important things in Semarang was the railway which had its headquarters there. So, when the first train passed through Semarang in 1863 to commemorate the awe inspiring event the newspaper was renamed “De Locomotief”. For Kartini to be reading this newspaper daily would have helped her to keep abreast with current affairs in Netherlands Indies. She also subscribed to De Gids which is the oldest (founded in 1837) Dutch literary periodical still published today. By reading this she was up-to-date with the latest trends in Dutch literature and via journals like the De Hollandsche Lelie (The Dutch Lily) and De Echo Kartini came in contact with the Dutch feminist movement.

Kartini had several friends who were strong feminists. The first was her friend Mrs Ovink-Soer who was the wife of the Assistant Resident of Jepara. In 1899 Kartini wrote to De Hollandsche Lelie looking for a pen pal. She was answered by a young Dutch feminist named Estella Zeehandelaar who also became a firm friend although to their sorrow, they never met. Her third feminist friend was Rosa Abendanon-Mandri, the wife of the Minister of Education, Religion and Industry, another feminist who became a second mother to Kartini. Kartini had other feminist friends such as Nellie van Kol and Annie Glasser who taught Kartini French. Through them all she learnt about the suffragettes’ struggle for women’s emancipation and women’s emancipation opened her eyes to emancipation for her whole people.

The problem with some of Kartini’s critics is that they have not read her letters and when they have, they have not taken the time to approach her writings with the imagination, intelligence and sensitivity of heart necessary to understand them. Kartini thought seriously about many of the most important topics of the day including polygamy, child marriage, vocational education, the relationship between men and women and between nations, Western education not only for women but also for men, religion, literature, the arts and many other topics. In her writings Kartini wrote straight from the heart in a clear and well thought out manner. Kartini died at the age of 25 and her letters are shockingly wise and moving for a person of that age. She analyzes in a clearly and combines this with a passionate voice that speaks directly from the depths of her heart. At times her writing is almost lyrical as is in a letter to Mr Abendanon’s son:

“After having had days of rain we went out one morning to see how our flower children were getting along. We were afraid that they would have suffered from the over-abundant rain, but we found rose bushes full of green buds. The days came and the days went; our roses were full of luxuriant leaves and of beautiful blossoms. Rain, rain, they needed it before they could bear those splendid blossoms.

Rain-rain-the soul needs it in order to grow and to blossom. Now we know that our tears of today serve only to nourish the seed from which another, higher joy will bloom in the future.

Do not struggle, do not complain and curse sorrow when it comes to you; it has its mission. Bow your head submissively before suffering. It brings out the good that is in the heart. But the same fire which purifies gold turns wood into ash…”

Another thing that is clear from her writings is that Kartini’s life centered around a very powerful dream. It was the core of her existence and that dream was to fight for education for Indonesian women by going to Holland and studying to become a teacher, then to return to Indonesia once she had graduated and open schools for women. She dreamt of emancipating her sex and she believed that the way to do so was through education. This was no ordinary dream for Kartini. It was an obsession. She could smell it, feel it, taste it and it was always her most passionate thought perched behind everything that she did. It was her last thought at night before sleep claimed her conscious mind.

One day the possibility of that dream becoming reality was opened for Katini by her friend, Henri Hubertus van Kol, a Socialist member of the Dutch parliament who obtained a scholarship for her to go to Holland to study. Finally, what Kartini had dreamed of for so long was within her grasp and not only that but both her father and her mother gave their consent for her to go. Kartini’s happiness was over flowing. And then the unexpected happened, the Minister of Education, Religion, and Industry, Jacques Henry Abendanon suddenly came on an unannounced trip to Jepara. He and Kartini went for a walk together along the favourite beach that she referred to as Klein Scheveningen. No one will probably ever know what exactly he said to her but when they came back from that walk, Kartini gave up her dream to go to Holland and turned down the scholarship. Takdir Alisjahbana believed that what happened was that Abendanon was part of the government which at that time was in the hands of the Conservatives while Van Kol who obtained the scholarship for Kartini was from the opposition, the Socialist party and Abendanon feared that the Socialists would use Kartini to show the bad state of Indonesians under the Conservatives. He thinks that Abendanon probably told Kartini that if she went to Holland it would cause problems for her father’s position as regent as regents were government employees. We do know for sure that he told her that if she went to Holland the other regents would never accept it and that it would do harm to the cause of women’s education.

There was a very deep bond between Kartini and her father, a great love and she understood what it cost him to allow her to go to Holland, the censure and disapproval of the other regents and Javanese aristocratic society in general. He was also very sick and the Javanese believe that an undutiful child makes her parents ill. Despite all that he granted her permission to go to Holland and she describes her father’s sacrifice and love with great tenderness:

“when I was alone once more and had gained my desire there was no joy in my heart; there was only pity and sympathy for the sorrow of one whom I loved. My tears were for him. From the depths of my soul I prayed, “O grant that from this great sacrifice of my parents, flowers will spring up and fruit will grow for our land, and for our people.”

Kartini understood that by agreeing to her going to study in Holland her father had made an enormous sacrifice for her and so when Abendanon asked Kartini to make the same sacrifice for her father’s sake she did not hesitate. She gave up the dream of her heart for her father: the scholarship to study in Holland.

Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana once described how when a person gives up the dream that is the core of their existence: “people often give up the will to live and I believe that that was the case with Kartini. She tried to accept her defeat gracefully, but she seems to have lost her will. Kartini was always against polygamy but after this she agreed to become the fourth wife of one of the regents and within less than two years she died after complications in child birth. So, it makes sense if many ask, “What did she actually produce?”

However, her death was not the end of the story. Abendanon who genuinely liked Kartini was shocked when she died. He had thought perhaps that she could always go later to Holland. It took him 6 years but he collected and edited her letters creating a book entitled “Door Duisternis tot Licht” or “Through Darkness Towards Light”. This book became a best seller and led to the creation of the Kartini foundations which began establishing schools for girls. But opening schools  was only half the battle for there were already schools for girls opened by the Netherlands Indies government at the time. Many people however refused to allow their daughters to attend such schools. It was Kartini’s words, her thoughts and writings that changed people’s hearts and helped to open the flood gates to women’s education.  On some level her soul understood long before that sometimes a person must give up their illusions (in her case studying in Holland) to reach their ideal (education for women). It was her writings which through the death of her illusions and even her own death became powerful enough to open the flood gates to women’s education. It was her story….

Ratu Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Johan and Siti Aisyah We Tenriolle were fine women, far ahead of their times but they did not inspire a whole nation in the way that Kartini did and Kartini did inspire more than the Javanese. To many Indonesians both men and women alike Kartini symbolized their longing for education and the freedom that education brings. Also to many freedom fighters struggling for independence Kartini was an inspiration. She influenced Indonesian political leaders such as Sukarno, Sjahrir and Hatta as well as literary figures such as Armin Pane, Amir Hamzah, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana and Pramoedya Anantatur who admired her deeply. Mohamad Hatta’s daughter, Halida Hatta says, “My father knew and was friends with Kartini’s brother Sosorokartono. When Kartini died my father was only two years old nevertheless, he admired Kartini and her writings.”

By stamping Kartini as only speaking for the Javanese her critics also make a mistake because although Kartini wrote a lot about Java (after all that is where she lived and had most of her experience) when she demanded education she wanted that education and that emancipation for all women in the Netherlands Indies – not only Javanese women; just as she wanted education and freedom for all Indonesians – not only the Javanese. This is why Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana described Kartini as Indonesia’s first modern intellectual. She thought in terms of Netherlands Indies not just one group. When her scholarship went to Sumatran, Haji Agus Salim, she was pleased.

This is reflected in the articles of association of the Kartini Organization in Netherlands Indies which built the first Kartini school and was created before the Kartini Foundation of the Netherlands. Article 3 states that the aim of the organization is to establish schools for native girls – not only Javanese girls. A list of the members of the organization show that there were far more Indonesian members than Dutch members. The head of the organization may have been a Dutchman but the Deputy head was an Indonesian. So, who says that Kartini and her dream were a colonial invention? If Indonesians had not supported Kartini and also dreamt her dream, they would not have sent their children to the Kartini schools or the government schools which opened the way for women’s education.

When Kartini’s critics dismiss Kartini and her work as a colonial propaganda instrument it shows a narrow and limited approach to the topic of Kartini which assumes firstly, that everything colonial and all Dutch people from that period were bad but that is obviously not the case. The Dutch ethical policy contained many good features in it for Indonesians. One of these was education for women as well as women’s rights. An idea or a policy should be judged on its own merits and not on who proposed it. In the realm of ideas such as women’s emancipation and education Kartini was not an object but the equal of her Dutch friends. Together with them she was fighting for an ideal that they all believed in.

Debra Yatim a feminist from Kalyanamitra, an Indonesian feminist group that celebrates its 33rd anniversary this year says that Indonesian women’s organizations have moved from the viewpoint that Kartini did not accomplish much and was merely a symbol created by the colonial government. “In the end the women’s groups decided that it did not matter that Kartini was not the first to study or open a school. One can only continue a discourse if one has written down one’s ideas for posterity – which Kartini did. Rohana Kudus wrote about women’s issues before Kartini but her work was only republished about 5 years ago whereas we have been reading Kartini’s letters since they were translated into Malay in 1922 and most Indonesian intellectuals before that could speak Dutch and had been reading her letters since they were first published in 1911.”

This then was Kartini’s lasting contribution: through her writings Kartini gave us a narrative, a story told with intelligence, passion and poetry about women’s education and emancipation. Her writings were her enduring work which moved not only the Javanese but a whole nation and at times even the world outside Indonesia. What Kartini’s critics failed to understand was the power of the pen…

(Tamalia Alisjahbana)