Opinion: Finding Kartini – Dea Safira Basori

When I was a child, I didn’t know the correlation between Kartini Day and feminism, and nor did I know the word ‘feminism’. Kartini Day was mostly a day when children went to school wearing traditional dress, which consists of a kebaya and jarik (batik sarong). Back then, it was fun to celebrate Kartini Day without even understanding, or having a deeper sense of meaning of who Kartini really was or what she did for the country.

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The author on Kartini Day, 2014. Photo: Dea Safira Basori

As I grew up, I learned what she achieved in her life through a narrated biography series broadcast by one of the national TV news channels. What I learned from the program was that she was placed in an arranged marriage against her wishes with someone who already had three concubines, and despite being the only legal wife Kartini was opposed to polygamy. Coming from a family of nobility, she used her privilege to open a school for indigenous Javenese women (though this still required her husband’s permission).

As I was educated abroad during my primary school years, I did not know much about how Indonesia’s education system portrays Kartini today. It did once cross my mind that we usually only celebrate her legacy by parading in traditional clothes and competing for prizes by wearing the best traditional outfit. But I never voiced these thoughts.

At the time, I also never thought of Kartini as a rebel due to my lack of knowledge. There was nothing about her to which I could relate, as my community portrayed her as a perfect woman who was smart but still relied on a male figure in her life to allow her to do what she wants – which is just not me.

When I grew older, I experienced sexism even from my own parents. They always axed my dreams of becoming an astronaut, a teacher and a journalist and they let my brother choose what he wanted to study – but not me. My parents have always wanted me to have a respectable job so I can find a respectable husband, and through this they have persuaded me into studying medicine or dentistry; they didn’t let my curiosity flourish. As much as my parents have supported my rights to receive higher education, they are always involved in the decision making.

Growing up as a woman in Indonesia is hard. Personally I have experienced sexism, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination, especially when I am vocal, and this behavior towards me is mostly in the name of religion. I have always been vocal despite my community never encouraging women speaking out. My existence was always validated by a man and almost every man I met in my community always had the urge to correct me. I knew something was wrong. My mom also warned me that I could never find a husband because a man will never want to be overshadowed by a woman’s success. I so badly wanted to prove that she was wrong.

Despite the fact people have always used religion to attack me, I have always believed that God created humans with a simple logic and a noble belief, which is to use these gifts for the betterment of humankind. I always use logic as it is the greatest gift which should be embraced.

I started educating myself and took a great interest in women’s issues through news and articles online. It started from the core of how women are told to stay at home after marriage and listen to what their husband says. I read Mona Eltahawy’s book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. I soon discovered the issues women have been facing in the Middle East are not far from what Indonesian women have also been going through.

I came across Parasit Lajang (Single Parasite) by Ayu Utami, a book on Indonesian women that finally led me to become more vocal. I also came across her essay discussing how the New Order led by Soeharto’s regime conditioned the image of women, especially Kartini, to be educated but also domesticated with house duties. I believe this conditioning has been perpetuated since the biggest Indonesian genocide. The propaganda claims Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement) emasculated and castrated men, which is opposed to what Gerwani was actually working on. Gerwani has empowered thousands of women so they can be involved in decision making in their communities, to improve the wellness of all Indonesia’s citizens.

In my eyes, Soeharto’s method of reforming Kartini’s image was systemized within the bureaucracy. Every government institution uses the Dharma Wanita Union (the union for the wives of employees) to shape how women should present themselves – how they dress, talk and act. I’ve seen my mom in this union and I can see she was oppressed because of the political games, but she played along. Regardless, she still accepts it.

I soon realised that playing dress ups and allowing a man to dictate what you should do and who you should be is not what Kartini fought for. I studied her biography again and this time I studied it deeply. I finally could relate to her. She lived in an oppressed society, the society in which I am still living today. She read far more books than I could ever read. And she had the instinct to use her privilege to educate the underprivileged women around her. Yes, I can relate to her and what made her a true feminist. She is the kind of feminist who empowers women to stay true to their personal values, and to let no man stand in the way.

Deep in my heart I know I am oppressed, but there is no way to describe my struggle with words except by being a feminist.

Unfortunately, I believe the celebration of Kartini Day today is not about empowering women. And sadly, I feel Kartini’s fight is not commemorated as the fight for Indonesian women’s rights. Some also think it would be better to combine Kartini Day with Mother’s Day, which is completely different from what Kartini advocated. I am also saddened by the lack of knowledge even of young educated women who think a woman’s existence should be justified by a man. Many people who are unfamiliar with the term ‘feminism’ also believe a man can never be a feminist.

I feel the idea that feminism is morally destroying is deeply rooted in the nation’s consciousness. But then again, how can you expect your country to develop in terms of welfare if you limit the basic human rights for women to be involved in and take part in society? I have seen a lot of parents praying that their new born babies become a good, devoted, religious person and be useful for the country, but not a single one of them thought about making sure their kids have the rights to be involved in making the country a better place.

To me, the Kartini Day we’ve all been celebrating is no longer relevant to what Kartini fought for. As the generation that holds the key to the future, we should renew and remember her as one of the pioneers of women’s rights to education – but not just her. We should also remember other female warriors who fought side by side with men and even led the war against colonialism to achieve Indonesia’s freedom. In fact, there should be a day for Cut Nyak Dien, Cut Meutia, Marta Christina Tiahahu and Nyi Ageng Serang for being female war warriors. There should be a day for every women’s struggle until we achieve the social equality and freedom our predecessors fought for.