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KartiniYesterday was a national day of Kartini in Indonesia. Young girls at schools attend the celebration by wearing the kebaya with sanggul (as you see in her pic left). They sing the song dedicated to her, Ibu Kita Kartini (Our mother, Kartini).

During her life Kartini fought for women’s rights.



Who was Kartini?
Kartini was born on April 21, 1879, in Mayong village near of Jepara, a town located in the center of the island of Java. She was born into the Javanese priyayi, or aristocracy. Her official aristocrat title was Raden Ajeng (Lady). Her father was Jepara mayor Raden Mas Adipati Ario Sosroningrat. Kartini was the fifth child of 12 children born to Sosroningrat’s several wives. Kartini’s father was a liberal man. He sent her to Dutch elementary school along with her brothers. The Dutch had colonized Java and established schools open only to Europeans and to sons of wealthy Javanese. Due to the advantages of her birth and her intellectual inclination, Kartini became one of the first native women allowed to learn to read and write in Dutch.

Despite her father’s permission to allow her a primary education, by Islamic custom and a Javanese tradition known as pingit, all girls, including Kartini, were forced to leave school at age 12 and stay home to learn homemaking skills. At this point, Kartini would have to wait for a man to ask for her hand in marriage. Even her status among the upper class could not save her from this tradition of discrimination against women; marriage was expected of her. For Kartini, the only escape from this traditional mode of life was to become an independent woman.

Kartini and her husband JoyodiningratDuring her seclusion Kartini continued to educate herself on her own. She was fond of Dutch literature and read newspapers on regular basis. She started corresponding with several Dutch women. One of them was Rosa Abendanon who later bundled the letters of correspondence between Kartini and her Dutch lady friends together and released them as a book called Door duisternis tot licht (Out of dark comes light). These letters are now collection of The Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)  in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Kartini wished to study in Europe at that time. Later on she adjusted this ambition to study in Batavia (Jakarta) instead but she had to forget this ambition. At the age of 23 Kartini was set to marry Raden Adipati Joyodiningrat, the Regency Chief of neighbouring Rembang. Joyodiningrat had three wives. Although strongly against her ideas Kartini agreed to step into this arranged marriage to please her father. Her husband understood Kartini’s ideas. He even helped her establishing a school for women in the east porch of their residence. Kartini gave birth to her one and only son on September 13, 1904. A few days later on September 17, 1904, Kartini died at the age of 25. She was buried in Bulu Village, Rembang.

Ideas for women’s rights
Kartini’s urge in searching ways for women to struggle for their rights appeared in her thoughts she shared in her letters. She wanted women to have the freedom to learn and study. Kartini wrote of her ideas and ambitions, including Zelf-ontwikkeling (one’s development), Zelf-onderricht (one’s education), Zelf-vertrouwen (self-confidence) , Zelf-werkzaamheid (being able to work independently) and Solidariteit (solidarity).

Position of Indonesian women now
Below I try to resume briefly the recent developments concerning the position of women in Indonesia today:

  • There is a separate wagon available in the commuting train in Jakarta to prevent sexual harassment against women.
  • The bill against Porno action and Pornography which has been effective since 2008. According to this questionable bill it is forbidden for women to show their shoulders and navel (bikini or swimwear).
  • Some women still find polygamy acceptable. They don’t object to be the second or third wife.
  • Unlike women in Kartini’s time, the majority of Indonesian women are educated now. Some even have a wonderful career and can combine this with their family.

Her legacy in The Netherlands
As Kartini was European oriented at that time, it seems interesting for me to look at her legacy here. First thing I found is this Kartini foundation. This foundation commits to help poor children in Malang, East Java to get proper education. After further browsing I found Kartini Prijs. It is an initiative of the municipality of Den Haag (The Hague). Since 2007 Kartini prijs has been issued to persons, companies and foundations who stimulate emancipation of minorities in Den Haag.

Kartini fought for women’s rights just as other women in the history did. Let’s hope that her idea’s would live on and strived by not only women but also men.


4 thoughts on “Kartini

  1. The existence of a Kartini Foundation and a Kartini Prijs was new to me.

    For some reason I feel it’s odd the Hague-municipality only seems to award local people with the prize which has the name of the Indonesian Joke Smit.

    • Did you know there are in total 5 Kartini streets in NL? Yes, it was quite a suprise for me either to stumble upon Kartini prijs. Perhaps by doing that, Municipality of Den Haag honors Kartini more?

  2. I am interested you said: “Some women still find polygamy acceptable. They don’t object to be the second or third wife.”

    What? I think of their inner voices would not say like that. Maybe yes because their bargaining power against her husband is not sufficient.

    • Tikno,

      Some who are aware of being the second and third wife, whose inner voices actually say no, in fact they accept polygamy by willing to commit to that position. I don’t judge them for I know there are many reasons for them by doing so, mostly economy. In Kartini’s case, her reason was pleasing a father. I just feel sorry for them cause once you have a position of the second or third wife, you can hardly come up for your rights. Those women are very dependent of their husband’s favor of that of the first wife. I am aware of this situation, even heard this first hand.

      And back to the topic of this post, I wonder if Kartini would be pleased to witness that after almost a century, polygamy is unfortunately still there.

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