Kartini (1879–1904)

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Kartini (1879–1904)

Indonesian feminist and nationalist whose youthful writings, chiefly letters, led to the liberation and education of the women of Indonesia. Name variations: R.A. Kartini; honorary titles "Raden Adjeng or Ajeng" and "Ibu" are sometimes added, though she preferred to use only her one name. Born Kartini on April 21, 1879, in the town of Mayong on the island of Java; died on September 17, 1904, at age 25, soon after childbirth; daughter of Raden Adipati Sosroningrat (an Indonesian civil servant of high rank) and Ngasirah (one of his two wives); educated in Dutch schools, at elementary level, and after age 16; married Raden Adiati Djojo Adiningrat, November 8, 1903; children: one son, Raden Mas Singgih (b. 1904).

At age 12, as prescribed by Islamic law, was sequestered in preparation for marriage (1891); resisted the practice, leading to increased freedom (beginning 1896); was permitted to enroll in a Dutch school in Japara (1898); founded a school for women (1903); accepted an arranged marriage (November 3, 1903); died four days after birth of her son (1904).

At the end of the 20th century, few were aware of the radical effect that the simple act of reading or attending school had on a female child born a century earlier into a traditional Eastern culture. But these are the influences that placed a young Indonesian woman, known as Kartini, at a cultural crossroads that was to help virtually every woman of her country to break away from the rigid rules of their traditional society.

Born on April 21, 1879, in the town of Mayong on the Indonesian island of Java, Kartini was the daughter of wealthy native aristocrats who had prospered under Dutch rule. At the time, Java was the most important and the most heavily settled of the Netherlands' overseas possessions, where spices, rubber, and tobacco were grown for export. The largest in the string of Indonesian islands, Java lies between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The year after Kartini's birth her father, Raden Adipati Sosroningrat, became regent of the area, having worked his way up through the Indonesian ranks of the colonial civil service. Her paternal grandfather, Pangeran Tjondronegoro, had been a famous regent of Central Java, and the first Javanese aristocrat to have his children educated by a Dutch tutor. His son inherited many of Tjondronegoro's liberal notions but maintained a traditional Indonesian household. Polygamy was an integral part of the old Hindu-Javanese social system, and some members of the aristocracy maintained large retinues of women, though Muslims rarely had more than four wives and sometimes fewer.

Kartini's mother Ngasirah was her father's first, but not his chief, wife. The name of Ngasirah's father included the title haji, which denotes a pilgrim to Mecca and suggests a family of devout Muslims as well as persons of means. Ngasirah was married to Kartini's father at age 14 and gave birth to eight children. According to the traditional family hierarchy, however, the person Kartini referred to as "mother" was her father's second wife, Raden Ayu Sosroningrat, a descendant of another aristocratic house, whose superior status made her the feminine head of the household. She had three children.

Kartini's status came from her father, rather than her mother, and was enhanced by her position as an older child. Rules of etiquette dominated daily life. Younger brothers or sisters, for example, had to pass by Kartini crawling on the ground with heads bowed and could only address her in formal terms while making a sembah (putting both hands together and bringing them below the nose) after every sentence. They also had to offer her the best foods at meals.

Despite these traditions, Kartini had an unusual opportunity for a girl of her class. Her father allowed her to attend a European-style school up to the age of 12. There, she learned the Dutch language and became an avid reader of European literature. But as she approached puberty, her world was completely changed. Islamic law, known as Adat, required that Muslim girls be isolated and trained in the skills and traditions of a wife, and Kartini was confined to the home in preparation for a marriage expected to occur around age 15 or 16. For daughters of the wealthy during this period of seclusion, every material desire was met: they ate rich foods, wore beautiful clothes, and were waited on by servants, but they were denied all personal freedom. Wrote Kartini:

I was locked up at home, and cut off from all communication with the outside world, whereto I would never be allowed to return except at the side of a husband, a stranger, chosen for us by our parents, and to whom we are married without really knowing about it. European friends—this I heard later—had tried every possible way to dissuade my parents from this cruel course for me, a young and spirited child, but they were unable to do anything. My parents were inexorable; I went to my prison. I spent four long years between four thick walls, without once seeing the outside world.

Kartini's early educational experience had given her both cultural insight and fluency in Dutch. She loved school and was a brilliant student, although she became painfully aware that Europeans regarded Indonesians as inferior. Later she wrote, "It was hard for many teachers to give a Javanese child the highest mark, no matter how well deserved."

Although Kartini's brothers attended secondary school in Semarang, and her outstanding abilities led several Europeans to encourage her father to allow her to pursue a secondary education, the liberal leanings of Adipati Sosroningrat did not go far enough for him to allow his daughters to escape the traditional period of seclusion before marriage. From age 12 to 16, Kartini lived entirely within the family's large walled compound, learning the skills which would be required of her as a wife—household duties, preparation for festivals and ceremonies, and the Indonesian art of batiking, or painting and dyeing waxed cloth. Along with the practical lessons came restrictions in physical movement and emotions, meant to curtail youthful exuberance and prepare the young girl for submission to the will of her future husband, creating a certain type of woman Kartini later described:

The ideal Javanese girl is quiet, as immobile as a wooden doll; speaking only when it's

absolutely necessary in a tiny, whispering voice which can't be heard by ants; she walks step by step like a snail; laughs noiselessly without opening her mouth.

Forced to confront inequalities sanctified by tradition, Kartini rejected those she could. Denying the idea of her own superior status among her siblings and others, she insisted that she be approached equally by everyone, just as she expected to approach others equally. She also perceived that women themselves often perpetuated many inequities by teaching young boys to hold women in contempt. Hearing the way older women spoke of young girls, she longed for the chance to prove that women were human beings just the same as men.

It will be a tremendous satisfaction to me when the parents of other young women who also want to fend for themselves will no longer be able to say, "no one of our community has done that yet."


Although Adipati Sosroningrat insisted on his daughter's seclusion, he was a loving father, and no bully. He allowed her to continue reading the books she loved and continued to reach for a compromise between the Western influences that had invaded his personal life and the only culture he knew. Kartini maintained a tender affection for him and wrote, "Father has borne so patiently with all my caprices; I have never heard a harsh or bitter word from his lips. He is always loving, always gentle."

Kartini read the works of Dutch feminists as well as standard texts on a wide variety of topics, and felt strongly influenced by Hilda van Suylenburg, published in 1897, a novel by the Dutch feminist Cécile Goekoop . The book involves a love story that culminates in a marriage seen as a partnership between two equals, in which the protagonist becomes a lawyer to prevent social injustice and marries an engineer with radical social notions.

Among her siblings, Kartini remained envious of her younger sisters who were still allowed to go to school, and felt at odds with those siblings who found her notions strange. She was supplied books by her brother Kartono, and formed a close-knit circle with her sisters Roekmini and Kardinah , who joined her in seclusion and helped her to define her struggle against the larger culture.

Kartini reached the outside world through her letters. She corresponded with Stella Zeehandelaar , a pen pal in Amsterdam. She also wrote to Marie Ovink-Soer , wife of the Assistant Resident, living in Japara. Ovink-Soer wrote children's books and contributed to the major feminist journal of the day, The Dutch Lily. Kartini also wrote the members of the Abendanon family, and it was J.A. Abendanon, who would collect and the publish the letters which are her chief literary legacy. Hilda de Booy-Boissevain , Dr. N. Adriani, Professor G.K. Anton, and Nellie van Kol-Porrey were others who participated in the correspondence that dealt with, among other topics, polygamy, relations between men and women in marriage, education, women in relation to the law, and the cruelties imposed by the colonial caste system.

In 1896, Kartini was 16 when her prison doors gradually began to open. Her father, persuaded by Marie Ovink-Soer, allowed his daughters to leave seclusion for visits to Ovink-Soer's home, ostensibly for lessons in handicrafts and painting. Kartini and her sisters traveled to and from her house in a closed carriage. They were also allowed to visit a village of woodcarvers producing traditional Indonesian art. When their travels were extended to the cities of Semarang and Batavia, their activities did not go unnoticed among the local Dutch and Indonesian elites. Knowledge of Kartini's letters had begun to spread, and newspapers began to refer to her as "the well-known Raden Ajeng Kartini," although her father refused to allow publication of the articles she had begun to write.

In 1898, she and her sisters were "officially" granted their freedom when they were allowed to go to the capital and participate in festivities held in honor of Queen Wilhelmina 's investiture which was taking place in the Netherlands. The governor-general gave a ball in Semarang to mark the occasion. As regent, Kartini's father was invited, but the governor-general's special invitation also included his daughters. It was usual for the colonial government to invite representatives of the Indonesian upper class, but this was the first time an invisible element of Indonesian culture had been recognized—single women. Writing about the ball, Kartini showed an increasingly nationalistic outlook: "We have long ceased to believe that the European civilization is the only true one, the most superior and unsurpassed."

That same year, Kartini began to attend a Dutch school in Japara, one of the first Indonesian women ever to attend a European school. In a classroom with only 11 European girls, she discovered more attitudes foreign to her: their free relations with their brothers and sisters,

their dreams of careers, and their notions of possessing certain rights. At the same time, Kartini believed that European-style education was not enough. She valued the traditional Indonesian attachment to family and home, and emphasized the influence of mothers in the shaping of personality and character. Since women instilled thrift, industry, and honesty in children, she felt their role should be elevated. Wrote Kartini:

Can anyone deny that the woman has a great role to play in shaping society morally? She is precisely the person for it. … Never will the uplifting and development of the Javanese people proceed vigorously so long as the woman is left behind with no role to play.

In mid-September 1900, Kartini traveled with her parents and sisters to Batavia, to meet with the principal of a girls' school. It was her dream by then to establish a boarding school for Javanese girls of the upper class, where she hoped to study. In 1901, the plan was rejected by the island's regents, saying that the time was not ripe for such a venture. When a marriage was arranged for her younger sister, Kardinah, Kartini and Roekmini remained united in their opposition to marriage for themselves, and their father continued to respect their wishes. Determined to be recognized as a full human being outside the bounds of marriage, Kartini wrote, "We must declare ourselves adults and force the world to recognize our majority."

In April 1902, Kartini had a case brought before the States General, the lower house of the national legislature, pleading for her to be allowed to take teacher training in the Netherlands. A scholarship was awarded, but Kartini's family and friends, including many Europeans, urged her to stay in Indonesia and begin teaching there. In July 1903, Kartini was 24 when she and Roekmini opened a school for upper-class girls, with ten pupils. She was an unmarried woman, with an outlook that had earned her an international reputation, and she was at the start of a teaching career. Then, unexpectedly came a request for her hand in marriage. Raden Adiati Djojo Adiningrat was a widower many years Kartini's senior, who had lived for some years in the Netherlands and was considered a progressive leader in his region. Like Kartini, he was interested in traditional Indonesian arts.

Caught between radical principle and real practice, Kartini's family pressured her to accept the proposal. Finally she accepted, on the condition that Djojo Adiningrat would allow her to continue her school. Shocked by her decision to marry, Stella Zeehandelaar ceased her correspondence with Kartini. There is evidence, however, that Kartini had gained a new perspective in a letter to Abendanon-Mandri: "Didn't I say to you that we gave up all personal happiness long ago? Now life has come to claim that promise from me. Nothing will be too bitter, too hard, too difficult for us if we are able through it to contribute even one drop of sand to the building of that beautiful monument: the people's happiness."

Determined that her marriage would set a new standard, Kartini met with her future husband before their marriage, which took place on November 8, 1903. In her school she had begun to educate aristocratic young women who were brought to live in her house, and she had plans to build a place for training apprentice woodcarvers in Rembang. When she became pregnant, she continued to teach, and one of her last letters discussed the problems of combining teaching and motherhood. On September 13, 1904, Kartini gave birth to a son, Raden Mas Singgih, and seemed to be recovering, but she died four days later, at age 25.

By every standard of measurement, Kartini led a sheltered life. Still she managed to escape the narrow confines of her time and her culture, addressing questions that continue to confront women. Her plea for women's equality struck a timely chord, and her determination that her people be treated equally with Europeans enhanced her legacy. In 1911, a number of Kartini's letters were published by J.H. Abendanon, under the title From Darkness into Light. The collection was highly censored; for example, it is thought that Abendanon deleted sections critical to Dutch colonial rule. A more complete version appeared in English in 1920, titled Letters of a Javanese Princess and edited by Agnes Symmers , but the translation was poor and the title misleading, since Kartini was an aristocrat but never a princess. Translated into regional languages spoken by 90 million Indonesians, however, the letters have exerted a powerful influence in her homeland, and proceeds from their publication have been used to found "Kartini schools" for women throughout Indonesia. Regarded as a pioneer for women's liberation and national liberation, Kartini holds the honorary titles "Raden Ajeng" and "Ibu," and her birthday, April 21, has become a national holiday.


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——, trans. and ed. "Letters from a Javanese Feminist, 1899–1902," in Massachusetts Review. Vol. 25, no. 4. Winter 1984, pp. 579–616.

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Kartini, Raden Adjeng. Letters of a Javanese Princess. Translated by Agnes Louise Symmers. Foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt. NY: W.W. Norton, 1964 (reprint of 1920 edition).

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Zainu'ddin, Ailsa G. Thompson. "'What Should a Girl Become?' Further Reflections on the Letters of R.A. Kartini," in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indonesia: Essays in honour of Professor J.D. Legge. Edited by David P. Chandler and M.C. Ricklefs. Clayton, Victoria, Australia: Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1986, pp. 243–279.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia