On 21st April, Indonesia celebrates ‘Kartini Day’, in remembrance of R. A. Kartini, who argued for women’s emancipation in the Dutch East Indies (as they were then called).
Raden Ajeng Kartini was born into an aristocratic family in 1879, when Javanese women rarely received an education. Her liberal father allowed her to go a Dutch school until the age of twelve, after which she was mainly secluded in the household, as was the custom for upper-class women. She managed to befriend a number of progressive Dutch and Indonesian individuals who stimulated her thinking, including the need for Indies women to get an education. She became active in that regard, but some of her plans (such as going to Holland to study) were thwarted by the conservative establishment and by her concern for her father’s feelings.
In letters to her friends, Kartini poured out her heart on issues such as her duty as a daughter, conflicts between the good and bad of Western values and the good and bad of traditional Java, and the lot of Indonesian women. She wanted to “substitute justice for old traditions” and “enlighten all of our people, and… raise up our sisters, so they may live and be treated as human beings”.
One of the issues that vexed her was polygamy, widely practised at the time and still legal in Indonesia today. She called it a “monstrous crime… enlivened by women’s foolishness: the victims.” She wrote that, if set on the path to this “cruel torture”, she would scream “I won’t.”
Some of her views and activities bothered her father, who also suffered recurrent illness. Kartini agonised that perhaps her behaviour was making him ill. When he arranged her marriage to an older man with three wives already, she conceded. Luckily her husband was also comparatively progressive and supported her efforts to establish a school for the wives of native officials. However, several days after she gave birth to a son, she tragically died, at the age of only 25.
After her death, one of her friends published a collection of her letters called “Through Darkness to Light” in English, and later as “Letters of a Javanese Princess”. The letters made her famous and had much more effect than her endeavours while she was alive; they continue to be republished today.
If you’re interested in a slightly longer account of Kartini’s life, see http://www.shadow-chase.com and click on the “Women of the Indies” button.