Kartini: Between Islam, nation-building and feminism
Writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies
Although she is hailed as the symbol of Indonesian women’s empowerment, Raden Ajeng Kartini remains open to various interpretations and imagery. The New Order regime twisted and reduced the significance of Kartini Day, commemorated annually on her birthday of April 21, into a kebaya fashion show to emphasize women’s femininity and domestication.
Meanwhile, modern feminist groups reclaim her as the representation of the early Indonesian feminist, who was not only concerned about women’s issues, but also about the struggle for the independence from Dutch colonialism.
However, Indonesia’s early feminist consciousness was essentially different from the modern one. Only since the mid-1990s have the terms “feminism” and “gender” been widely used. Therefore, Kartini might illustrate the historical development of Indonesian feminist consciousness, which emerged at the intersection of nationalism, Islam and Western values.
Before colonialization, women appeared to have access to high status. The historian Cora Vreede-De Stuers shows that Acehnese women participated in local forces to combat Dutch rule, while many Javanese women became leaders. The modern economy, alongside Western education, significantly transformed society. The historian Denys Lombard asserts that the emergence of ports, urban society and Islam further limited women’s roles. Some local traditions also restricted women from enjoying equal opportunities with men.
Born in 1879 to a feudal family, Kartini, at a young age, wanted to be a teacher to improve the education of young women. She dreamed of studying in the Netherlands to obtain a teacher’s certification and establish a boarding school for women. But Javanese traditions made Kartini leave school at 12 and enter the confinement of her own home. She started to read voraciously and write letters to her Dutch friends -- letters clearly imbued with her anxieties, hopes and dreams for women and independence.
Motherhood, being child bearers and child educators gave women a reason to be involved in public life, increasing their importance in preparing the next generation for the nation’s progress. Hence, motherhood became a vehicle of empowerment.
In one of her letters, Kartini wrote that Europe was the center of civilization and advancement. However, as a female native living under colonial oppression, Kartini witnessed injustice and exploitation, as noted by literary scholar Katrin Bandel.
Furthermore, her interest in Western knowledge coincided with her love and respect for her family and nation. Consequently, although she was fascinated with the advancement of women’s rights in the West, she could not entirely detach herself from either Javanese culture or Islamic values. Some resources even indicated that she was a disciple of famous Islamic scholar K. Saleh Darat as-Samarani (1820-1903).
Unlike the modern feminist notion, Kartini instead emphasized that the empowerment of Indonesian women could not simply be separated from their roles of mother and husband. In a letter she highlighted the importance of women and motherhood. “It is from women that humans receive their first education — on a woman’s lap, a child gradually learns to feel, think and speak; I came to realize more and more that the effect of the first education is not insignificant to human life ...”
Moreover, she apparently saw women’s education and advancement as a crucial aspect of nation-building through the development of morality. She wrote that “women are the pillars of civilization. Not because women are considered capable of the task, but because I myself strongly believe… that women make the biggest contribution to advancement of human morality.”
In line with the concept of “maternal feminism” cited by the scholar Elisabeth Locher-Scholten, Kartini thus followed the Javanese gender ideal of being a wife a mother working together with her husband to educate her children, to prepare the next generation. In this context, women’s empowerment also should not conflict with a harmonious marriage.
Kartini thus believed that, “God created women to be men’s partners, and their ultimate purpose in life is to have a husband… I gladly declare that women’s ultimate happiness for now and the next centuries will be to live harmoniously with men!” Kartini clearly reappropriated women’s empowerment discourse to fit the dominant ideologies, such as Islam, nationalism and the Javanese ideal of being a woman.
To understand Kartini’s thoughts means to examine the complexity of the interactions between Islam, nation-building and Western values. Although inspired by Western progress, Kartini developed her concept of women’s empowerment between the boundaries of Islam, Javanese ideals and traditional gender norms.
Sadly, in 1903, Kartini was forced to marry the regent of Rembang and became his fourth wife. She passed away after giving birth to her first child. Yet her figure remains an example of the fluidity of cultural discourses and how feminist discourse in Indonesia cannot be separated from its interactions with local aspects. It is no exaggeration to say that Kartini is a national figure with a transnational mind.
The writer, who obtained his Master’s in public policy from the National University of Singapore, is the writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies.
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