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What it means to be a modern-day Kartini

Cahya Wardhani
Cahya Wardhani

A knowledge enthusiast with a special interest on gender, museums, and culture.

Jakarta  /  Fri, May 20, 2016  /  10:02 am
What it means to be a modern-day Kartini

Globally, women do less paid work than men and conversely, spend more time on unpaid work than men do. (Shutterstock/*)

To a lot of us Indonesians, Kartini Day is identical to “kebayaan” or dressing up in traditional costumes. This is only natural as since primary school, Kartini Day was the moment our moms went out and about looking for traditional costumes to rent so we could win little trophies.
But do we really know who Raden Ajeng Kartini was? What made her so famous that a day is dedicated to her? What were the messages that she brought and are they still relevant today?
Kartini was born 137 years ago in colonial-era Jepara in Central Java. She was part of the Javanese aristocracy, which allowed her to attend a Dutch-language primary school unlike most of the children of her time.
But she was not as privileged as her male peers. As it was not the norm for girls to continue their education, Kartini had to stop going to school at the age of 12, from which age she had to stay at home until she got married – in an arranged marriage, no less.
She wrote letters to her pen-pals in the Netherlands about how she wished to have the freedom to learn and receive an education, and not just be bred and prepared for arranged marriages. These letters were seen as the dawn of the women's emancipation movement in Indonesia.
Girls today are much more privileged than the girls of Kartini’s time – I finished my bachelor’s degree and in 2013, Indonesia’s school participation rate is higher for females than males. There are more female than male students in university. Girls aged twelve and above are no longer forced to stay at home waiting for arranged marriages. So, we’re already jumping in joy at the finish line, right?
Not so much.
Although we receive better education and opportunities are relatively wider, we are not quite there yet in terms of gender equality. The fact is, despite the school participation rate, there are more men than women in Indonesia’s workforce. Out of the 34 coordinating ministers and ministers in the Cabinet, only eight are women. A 2012 McKinsey report stated that as we go up the corporate ladder, the number of women in the room significantly diminishes, with only 3 percent of CEOs in corporate America being female.

(Read also: Kartini: Between Islam, nation-building and feminism)
Even more, globally, women do less paid work than men and conversely, spend more time on unpaid work than men do. Based on the Indonesian human resources online community, Qerja, in Indonesia women are paid 87.64 percent of what men are paid – translating to a 12.36 percent pay gap.
Logically speaking, a fairer world doesn’t hurt anyone. Let’s take a look at what the impacts of ending the gender pay gap would be: for businesses, paying workers fairly boosts morale and improves public perception of the company. For the women, well, we get paid what we deserve; and for the men, well, you get paid the same, so no changes for you. Everyone’s happy.
Having more women in leadership positions, whether in corporations or government, also helps everyone. Men constitute only half the population, so if the senior positions are dominated by men, only half the population’s concerns and issues are being represented. We need different points of view, and having more diversity in leadership helps that. Furthermore, a Peterson Institute study showed that going from having no women in leadership positions to a 30 percent female share is associated with a one-percentage-point increase in net margin.

By looking past gender bias and appraising someone solely based on their own performance, we can have the right person for the job – not the right man for the job, nor the right woman. It makes sense both for the employer and the employees. Equal opportunities don’t hurt anyone.
So as individuals, what can we do?
First and foremost: recognize. Recognize that there are these gaps, and that we might have unconscious bias and stereotypes in our everyday decision making. Recognize that there is still, and always will be, room for improvement.
By recognizing this, we can step back before we make a decision and assess whether there are biases that could result in a widening of the inequality gap.
Secondly, but equally important, all of us have to participate in this. This is not a zero-sum game; no one loses. In order to make it work, we have to work hand in hand: women and men alike.

(Read also: Follow Kartini’s inspiration: Write for impact!)
Unknowingly, it is women themselves that can be the harshest critics of other women. It is very easy for women to dismiss, disregard and disrespect others: working moms to stay-at-home moms, those who choose to marry at a young age and those who wait, career-driven women and housewives. The decisions we make in life, in our career and marriages, don’t make us less of a woman – they shouldn’t make us less of a woman. We make decisions based on our own judgments and different backgrounds, and we should respect differences.
And men are vital in the equation too: making up roughly 50 percent of the population, even with all women making it work, we’re still short of half of the population. This is homework for both genders.
Kartini wouldn’t have been able to obtain as much education as she did or learn Dutch if not for her supportive father. Kartini’s husband allowed her to pursue her aim of creating a school for women. Remember, this is not a zero-sum game.
Kartini is celebrated for her ideas that were ahead of her time – she challenged the norms of her day, which now might be considered completely obsolete. Being a modern-day Kartini is not simply dressing up in beautiful kebaya and matching batik, it is having the spirit to see whether today’s norms and social conditions should to be challenged and improved on.
Looking back a hundred years ago, we might laugh at the fact that girls could only go to school until the age of twelve. Hopefully, in fifty years, or even sooner, our grandchildren will look back at us, and laughingly say, “Funny, back then, they thought girls were not equal to men”.


Cahya graduated from Institut Teknologi Bandung majoring in Management, and now works in a commercial role in the energy sector, based in Jakarta. She is a self-proclaimed knowledge enthusiast with a wide array of subject including gender, museum studies, and culture. She loves reading, writing, and traveling in her spare time. She writes her thoughts at

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.