Is celebrating Kartini’s
Day still relevant today?

The question is at least raised by Gadis Arivia, founder of the Indonesian Women Journal, and Dr. Joost Cote, a historian who specializes in Indonesian cultural history. There are both pros and cons toward this “unexpected” question.

While the pros say that Kartini’s Day has been simplifiying the other Indonesian feminist movement, the cons respond negatively to this very logical question. But, what if the pros are perhaps right?

The increasing contemporary women’s involvement in public domain tells us that patriarchal power and social order have been shaken off. Besides, it is a fact that the majority of post-colonial Indonesia has a wrong understanding of Kartini’s thoughts.

This is simply seen from their response when asked about Kartini. While high school students say that Kartini is a figure of traditional women who dressed with kebaya, others say that Kartini is merely a daughter of RMAA Sosroningrat who had a tragic life. She campaigned against the practice of polygamy but is finally made to accept an arranged marriage.

But how have people come to this collective misunderstanding? Generally, the wrong reading of Kartini is definitely ensured by the social and political position of the New Order state.

Here, we need to remember that it is Sukarno’s Old Order state which had chosen Kartini as a national hero and established Kartini’s Day. There are of course many considerations on why Kartini was chosen ahead of other feminist figures.

In demanding emancipation, Kartini identifies many fundamental and pivotal values that are in line with Sukarno’s Old Order state’s project for revolution. She insists on taking a stand against her society’s traditional and feudal values which deny women to be part of non domestic sphere.

History records that Kartini is notable in a Javanese context for the degree of her access to the European world and her struggle for women’s freedom from oppression.

Her criticism of the Javanese patriarchal society and the evils of Dutch racism to indigenous people was not only rhetoric but was put into action.

Her intelligence led her to receive – although for some political reasons she was unable to take it – a formal scholarship in the Netherlands, where her brother, Kartono, and a number of Indonesian men were already studying. Behind the walls of the kabupaten (regency), the 20-year-old Kartini dynamically wrote more than 160 letters to her European friends.

She also voiced out a very critical and rigid memo entitled Give Javanese Education to the Netherlands administration demanding a new path to educate her people, both men and women. What a shame that Kartini’s popular legacy today has been reduced to referring to her as only a woman dressed in a kebayawho can cook?

Second, Sukarno’s Old Order chose Kartini to be the model of a progressive native woman. In a sense of nationalism, she gave sharp criticism against imperialism. Although she was the golden girl of the ethical policy elite, Kartini was clearly aware of the Dutch colonial rhetoric.

In Joost Cote’s words, “in the colonial context of Java, Kartini’s vision of new women as social educator, the nurturer of a new generation of the enlightened, inaugurates not only radical transformation of the traditional women’s role but also establishes a significant nationalist and political ethos” (2000).

In speaking out in her letters against Javanese aristocracy and Dutch colonialism, and for women’s education, Kartini gave the women’s movement the possibility of something it had never had before. And this is obviously the values which lie at the heart of Sukarno’s nationalist project – against colonialism – for the 1945 revolution.

Ironically, when the New Order came to power, Kartini was distorted  from a demolisher of patriarchal, traditional and colonial breakthrough to – what we can see from the Kartini hymne – putri sejati (a real daughter). This is of course a legal women’s withdrawal from their involvement in public domain to return to domestic affairs.

There is clear evidence that the New Order male nation reinvented Kartini with a different identity from an figurehead of emancipation to a putri sejati. In clarifying this shifting, much has been written.

The main setting for Kartini’s activities toward the end of her life becomes the central and the establishment of the “traditional feminine” Kartini is to tell Indonesian women at large to imitate her obedience to – what they call as kodrat wanita or  women’s destiny – come back to their domestic role, that is getting married.

The kodrat of Indonesian women prescribes that they should be meek, passive and obedient to the male members of the family, sexually shy and modest, self-sacrificing and nurturing, and that they find their main vocation as a wife and mother (Wierrengga: 2002).  

Indeed, there has been an emphasis on the degree of women’s independence as Surya Kusuma describes as Ibuism. This engages women to domestic and familial duties and managed to avoid women’s involvement in public spheres.

At this level, Kartini’s devotion to nation building is totally removed. As a result, these symbolic figure of Kartini as a putri sejati and the propaganda of a militant wife led to a change of public attitude of what they should know of the real Kartini and what they should celebrate.

This happens because people know Kartini’s ideas and aspirations as they were written in the New Order’s official history. According to this view,  the celebration of Kartini appears to be no longer necessary.

Of course, Kartini is very central to the embodiment of the Indonesian women’s movement. But its relevance becomes a question today. Kartini’s Day celebrations  ignore and even marginalize other relevant Indonesian feminist movements that have protested against the social order.

Even today, people merely draw their attention to only the New Order face of Kartini’s Day, rather than, maybe, a celebration of Indonesian women’s day.

I think it would be more enlightening for all of us to look at other figures, who remain Kartini’s shadow – such as Maria Walanda Maramis, Cut Nyak Dien, Inggit Ganarsih, Rasuna Said, Khofifah Indar Parawangsa, Saparinah Sadli, Musdah Mulia, Ratna Sarumpaet and others – and uphold their vision together of an ideal social order in one voice.   

For the sake of future generations, we need to open another page of women’s voice which departs their awareness from being women who are still politically, culturally and economically marginalized by the state, social and religious systems. While there are many ongoing analysis on Kartini’s thoughts and aspirations, I however would like to question whether the celebration of the domestic Kartini’s Day is still relevant for post-New Order state generation.

It is time for contemporary Indonesia to look at a more general – not only Java centered – enlightening figure.

And even if, later, we no longer celebrate Kartini’s Day, Kartini would remain central of the embodiment of the Indonesian feminist and nationalist movement.

The increasing women’s involvement in public domain tells us that patriarchal power and social order have been shaken off.

The writer is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Albert-Ludwigs University, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. The opinion expressed is personal.

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