by Susan J. Natih, Jakarta
April 21 is always remembered in Indonesia as the day of women’s emancipation that was initiated by Kartini, who was born on this day in 1879 in a village called Mayong, which is today located in the province of Central Java.
“”Hari Kartini””, or Kartini Day, is an important event in the school calendar, often providing the setting in which students can explore Indonesian history, the roles of women in society, families and the rich cultural diversity of Indonesia. Perhaps most importantly, it is for educators seeking to nurture the independence and self esteem of children in their care.
Kartini’s life and work demonstrate the freedom that comes through creative self expression. She showed to her people the need for self esteem as individuals and the need for an identity as a nation. That identity, as her letters also seem to suggest, is born, reborn and develops through each successive family generation.
Eleanor Roosevelt read Kartini’s letters in 1961 and said:
“”The girl who wrote these letters happened to have a father who, as she says, was liberal and had a tremendous understanding of the longings of the hearts of the young Javanese. He allowed his daughters to go to a foreign school until they were twelve and then they had to return to the cloistered home life, but among themselves there was a freedom of communication and a closeness, which did not exist in many of the Javanese families of the day.””
When we seek to give our children freedom of choice, we must also protect them with clear boundaries in terms of codes of conduct.
Children need positive guidance in order to make sense of a world that offers an ever-increasing number of choices, bringing the strength of their own family traditions and culture with them as they experience cultures that are different to their own.
Kartini’s father sought freedom for his daughters through an education that introduced them to a world beyond the then Dutch East Indies, besides exploring the intricacies of their own rich cultural heritage. Kartini’s voice was and still is heard through the written words of her letters.
In the introduction to Kartini’s Letters of a Javanese Princess, Hildred Geertz tells us that when she began writing her letters, Kartini was just twenty and “”still caught in the alternating optimism and despair of a thoughtful, rebellious adolescent.”” Geertz adds that when the letters end with her death, four years later, Kartini “”has become a woman. She has discovered for herself who she is, whom she loves, and for whom she must fight. She has made her choices.””
The letters speak to us of one who not only found and developed her voice through the written word but who also used her strength as an educated woman from a privileged background to set about making changes in her own life’s traditional pattern and irrevocably changing the pattern of life for women in her immediate vicinity through education and the blessed freedom of being able to read and write.
Besides tutors at home in the afternoons, Kartini and her sisters attended the Dutch school in the mornings.
As a local administrative head on the north coast of Java, Kartini’s father sought to introduce his daughters to the reality of life for the people whom he governed. He took his daughters to meet the villagers during times of crisis and celebration.
In 1892, when she was 12 years old, Kartini made friends with the wife of the new Dutch officer appointed as Assistant Resident of Jepara, Mrs. Ovink-Soer. She was an educated Dutch woman already with clear views on the rights of women.
Among the first Javanese to acquire some western education, Kartini realized that the choices it encouraged her to make, were also the right of all her people.
Although Kartini’s father kept her in traditional seclusion, he understood her well and nurtured her mind in his own way; he gave her books on Javanese culture to balance her western education and subscribed to a Literary Box, a box of magazines, children’s books, modern novels and foreign news, which was changed every week by a local library.
In 1903, obtaining permission to open the first ever all-girls school in her own home, she created her own syllabus and system of instruction. The school project coincided with Kartini’s consent to marry the Regent of Rembang and her own coming to terms with a traditional role in society that also enabled her to further her aim to create a school. The school in Rembang aimed above all to develop the character of young women, while offering them practical, vocational training and general education in art, literature and science.
Sadly, only one year after her marriage, on Sept. 17, 1904, Kartini died during childbirth. Thus, she did not live to see the first Kartini schools, which were opened in 1916; one of them, in Tegal, was directed by her sister Kardinah. Those pioneering schools began to break down resistance to girls’ education. Even more importantly, education as a whole began to expand in the light of Kartini’s ideas and co-education became possible.
On June 10, 1902 Kartini wrote about her thoughts on education: “”It has never been our aim to make our students become half European or half Javanese. What I mean by a liberal education is firstly to nurture Javanese people to become real Javanese, awakening within them a deep love for their nation and country with eyes and heart open to see beauty and to recognize their own needs. We would like to share with them all the good things of European culture, not to replace or erase the beauty of their own culture but rather to bring out the radiance of that culture.””
In the same spirit of discovery and respect, so may those from other cultures learn from the life, culture, creativity and innovation of this great person.
Sometimes frustrated, but so often encouraged by a family and friends who sought to understand and support her quest for independence, Kartini demonstrated that change comes from within ourselves and from within our homes; it does not reject but indeed respects and embraces tradition, leaving aside those practices no longer appropriate, while carrying forward a culture that has shaped the identity of a people over past generations.
Kartini’s life, as momentary and illuminating as a shooting star, seems to speak to us of the need to be true to ourselves and to hold fast to that which is good, while embracing change as a positive growth factor in society.
There is something so special in that given name of Kartini for it symbolized and still does, the courage of those who seek to be true to themselves and thus inspire courage and independence in those who stand beside them and within the generations of the future. Yes, we will respect her wishes and just call her, Kartini.
The writer is a Founder and Executive Principal of the Central and Sevilla Schools