Kartini. Really? Why Not?

Raden Ajeng Kartini, April 21, 1879 – September 17, 1904

Ever since social media and networking became popular, I began to dread special days and holidays. Well, not all of them, the ones that irks me the most are, ironically enough, the National Days designed to honour the women of my country. Say what?

No, I do not have misogynistic tendencies, nor am I cloaked in ancient notion about women and men. What I despise are the intentional misleading (and reductions) by the former government about what these days celebrate. Or, if it was unintentional there certainly was no effort to correct it either. Take the one we supposedly to be celebrating today; Kartini Day. Lady Kartini was an aristocrat from Jepara, Java, who lived in the 1880’s. Her high status in society means she was able to attend elementary Dutch school. Kartini loves to study, she likes reading books, and she writes regularly in the form of correspondence to her European friends. Her love of education led her to open up study centers in her house teaching the local children. She would like to have run a real proper school but died before that dream is realised.

A cover for her book of letters to Mrs. Abendanon

After her death, her Dutch friend, the Abendanon, compile her letters and published it. As it was written in Dutch, it was then translated at least into English and eventually in Indonesian. I haven’t actually read the book, such is my vast knowledge of Indonesian history. Apparently she wrote about hot topics like emancipation, religion, and women’s right to study, to make choices, etc. As we are talking about the early 1900’s I suppose it was quite fascinating for the Dutch, oh look one of our subject – remember we were still under occupation back then (and yes it was Dutch occupation despite what their history books might say) – is an enlightened and she’s a woman! She doesn’t want to be oppressed anymore, let’s help her!

Then, as fate would have it, our first president decided to grant her National Hero status and made her birthday a National Day. Here’s where it gets absurd. Lady Kartini is all about education. She wants girls to be able to pursue higher education, something she herself wasn’t able to do. So how do we little schoolchildren of Indonesia honours her on her birthday? Would you like to take guesses? No? I’ll answer it for you.By having a pageant aka fashion show with traditional costume.

I kid you not.

As a child I go along with it. As I am partly of Javanese descent, I dutifully done the kain and kebaya, complete with teeny tiny sanggul, the Javanese traditional clothing and what Lady Kartini would wear herself. As an adult I looked back and though, WTF???

What if you do not want to do the pageant thing? Well, there were other competitions one can enter; cooking, sewing and other domestic chores.

Again, I kid you not.

Years of being ‘honoured’ this way, is it any wonder that these days people are starting to feel resentful and lashing out at this poor woman? Let’s see the roll of complaint towards her:

  1. She’s not that heroic, all she does is writing letters, doesn’t really do anything.
  2. She’s only made hero because she’s Javanese.
  3. She’s only made hero because her thought are aligned with the Dutch people.
  4. She’s not relevant anymore, let’s erase this day and create something else.
  5. …. (fill in the blanks)

I can’t help but feel sorry for her. If you’ve worked hard to push education ‘reform’, to get the Quran translated into Indonesian so that people who studied it would understand what it is all about, to make others understand that letting girls study is a good thing rather than a bad thing. If you tried to do all that, and be honoured with… a fashion show? See who could look best like her! Wouldn’t you roll on your grave?

Is it any wonder the timeline is filled with debate and arguments every time this date rolls about? It’s almost 21 April, ooh let’s see who can make the best argument of why we shouldn’t celebrate her anymore. Let’s see who would dole out other Indonesia’s woman heroes who’s more deserving than her. And on and on it goes. Each and every year. Without fail. On fb, twitter, you name it, it’s there.

It is all the Dutch fault.

Yes, blame the oppressor. But I really do think, like rainy days… oh sorry that’s Alanis. Ok, if we look into history, she lived during the Dutch occupation right (yes we get it!) now, the Dutch, as an oppressor, aren’t exactly known to want to educate the oppresses. Oh yes there are schools but only select few can attend it. There were many levels of schooling. If you belong to the aristocrats you can go to that school, merchant families go to this school, general public go to the lower level school or none at all. Just check the history books. Who do you think created apartheid? Long live segregation!

If the Dutch had not occupied us, who’s to say that girls would not be able to receive education? Who’s to say that the Quran would not have been translated? It was the Dutch who doesn’t want Indonesian to be educated. It was them who doesn’t want Indonesian to learn Islam properly. It was their mission to keep us in the dark. It’s the whole point of occupying someone else’s land. You don’t occupy to make them better. You occupy to make yourself better! What is there to gain to give the inlanders proper academic and religious education? They’ll revolt!

And revolt they did. But I’ll get back to that. First, I want to discuss this issue of, “Oh she did nothing!” See, some people think because Lady Kartini doesn’t take up arms, she’s not qualified to be a hero. So the only way to be a hero is if you actually kill some white people? Look, she live in Java where it was relatively peaceful, she wasn’t exactly in the middle of a war zone like our other heroes was. Her dad was not an army general was he? Who’s to say she wouldn’t take up arms and lead an army to battle if Jepara was a war zone? We just don’t know do we?

So she probably was not able to build a school, if she hadn’t died so early, who’s to say she wouldn’t? She’s only 25, people, give her a break! She doesn’t do nothing, she wrote her thoughts! She wrote her opinion down. And it lives. Is it her fault that her letters got published?

Yes, going to school is so easy.

What is not relevant is the way we celebrate her. We should celebrate her by fulfilling her dreams. By showing the educations the Indonesian girls got. We should have poetry writing and reading competition. We should have essay writing, science, and math competition. Oh ok you can have a cooking competition, cooking does require reading skills. Show the parents and the world what the girls have learned! That’s how we should celebrate this day.

Not by nitpicking who should or should not be granted national day. Or having a fashion show! Thank God my kids’ school don’t do that. So so glad!

Until true education access for all is achieved, until all domestic labour finished, at the very least their compulsory 9 year of education, then and only then, would this day be irrelevant. Until then, we still need Kartini’s Day to remind us all.

Selamat Hari Kartini everyone!



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