Kartini and Indonesia’s Conception of Feminism

A painting of Raden Ajeng Kartini.

Every April 21st, Indonesia celebrates Hari Kartini, to commemorate a national heroine who is considered a pioneer in women empowerment back in the Dutch colonial days. She has advocated for women to be able to access education when it was still prohibited and taboo, because of the gender expectation that a woman should only become a housewife and take up the role of a caregiver to the family. She was also a fierce opponent to polygamous marriages, arguing that women deserves to be better treated than just accessories for men (although ironically, she married someone who already had 3 wives).

But the criticism that most Indonesians have today isn’t just about the consistency of her moral convictions, it’s “Why Kartini and not (insert other female heroines in Indonesia)?

In order to understand that, we need to take a time trip back to Soeharto’s regime. A man who rose into power after orchestrating one of the worst genocide Indonesia has ever seen, needed to put his chess pieces strategically to maintain his power. He did so through limiting political participation by forming his own dynasty in exchange for economic welfare (people to this day still praise how they missed the Soeharto ages because everything was so cheap back then); utilizing the army for military purposes and social control (known as Dwifungsi ABRI); and the last, a massive social engineering through education and social life, which entrenches traditional gender expectations.

If you are an Indonesian who was educated in primary and secondary school till the 1990s, you’d be familiar with the historical revisionism of G30S/PKI in our Social Studies class, where the Indonesian Communist Party is blamed for the atrocities in 1965, instead of Soeharto, his cronies, and the clandestine efforts of the West in the attempt to undermine communist influence in Southeast Asia. There is a powerful negative association attached to PKI and its affiliated organizations, one of which is Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita or Women’s Movement). Gerwani was one of the biggest women organization in the world as of 1965. They were established right after our fight for independence was over in 1950. Gerwani had a nationalist, socialist, and feminist leanings in their stances, where they opposed the role of Indonesian women as traditionally expected by local cultures and demanded for more involvement in the public sphere. When Soekarno implemented his Guided Democracy era, Gerwani shifted its leaning with Soekarno and PKI’s ideology of anti-imperialism, which was very big at that point in time.

As a part of Soeharto’s plan to take Indonesia under his wings, he fabricated Gerwani’s involvement in the killings of six generals during G30S, which is famously known as the Lubang Buaya incident. The name alone still gave me goosebumps, because as a child, I was heavily indoctrinated that Gerwani was *that* evil. They were accused of performing sadistic sexual acts to the generals, castrating them and gouging out their eyes, before eventually killing them. This manipulation has been pervading people’s minds for such a long time, that it massively disincentivized women’s activism in the country, out of fear of association that they are the ‘new Gerwani’.

Where does Kartini fit into all this? Well, I’m just about to explain. Julia Suryakusuma, a wonderful Indonesian feminist, wrote about State Ibuism: the Social Construction of Womanhood in New Order Indonesia. In her writing, she argued that women’s gender roles were heavily confined through state-engineered programs. The vacuum of activism after Gerwani has allowed Soeharto to fill in the normative space that constructs feminism in Indonesia. Liberal feminism, which allowed women to freely do whatever they want, is now seen as the enemy — that if we don’t confine women to dapur, kasur, and sumur (read: kitchen, bed, and well; essentially the domestic household sphere), they will rebel against men as evidenced by the Lubang Buaya incident. This has gained massive support from the religious right, as it aligned with most of their scripture interpretation, and Soeharto used it to curb down further activism.

Soeharto then appropriated Kartini’s work and identity to fit in with his political convictions, watering down the meaning of women empowerment. Firstly, she was reduced to being just an ‘ibu’, as evident by the song “Ibu Kita Kartini”. The word ‘ibu’, which is a translation of ‘mother’, has a strong association to the traditional role expected of women today. So even though Kartini was pivotal in advocating, even creating education for women back in the day, women today are subconsciously reverted to ‘remember their place’, that no matter how educated you are, you are always going to be an ‘ibu’ first. She is also a vivid portrayal of an aristocratic Javanese woman: polite, calm, well-mannered, not causing any trouble — and this becomes the standard of an ideal woman made by Soeharto.

This is further entrenched by Kartini Day being celebrated annually with schoolgirls and women wearing kebaya, a traditional Javanese dress for women, for the day; followed with competitions such as cooking, make-up, and writing, further creating subliminal messages that the best way to commemorate Kartini is by being a submissive, obedient, feminine woman.

So when people cry out, why not Dewi Sartika, Tengku Fakinah, Pocut Baren, Cut Meutia, or Cut Nyak Dien, when they all led military troops to fight the Dutch — the answer is simple: because these powerful feminists do not fit in the dominant narrative of what empowerment is supposed to mean according to defenders of patriarchy. These figures symbolizes that women can contribute and operate beyond the domestic sphere, that they too can have masculine traits of being aggressive and in charge/control. This creates a moral panic that is too often associated with Gerwani — that if you don’t keep your woman in check, she gonna cross you over. The choice of Kartini by Soekarno (and later supported by the New Order) has a political motive too: she symbolizes the Javanese colonialism — domination by an ethnic group that would enforce its cultural hegemony by reducing local histories and languages in one homogeneous event.

So here is my conclusion: I do agree that Kartini isn’t the only feminist icon out there and that there are others who have done more things than she did. But bashing a dead woman who didn’t have much to say on how her work is being appropriated by parties with selfish interests, that’s not helping anyone. The answer to this is to re-examine Kartini’s original work and look at it from her lens, as how she intended them, and not how we were told to by our educators and government.

Also, there is no one way of being a feminist. They shouldn’t be measured by how much colonizers they killed or how many schools they built, because having a standard on what kind of feminism should we celebrate defeats the purpose of feminism itself, making the movement exclusionary. That is why we desperately need to recognize other national heroines and dedicate special days for them (instead of them replacing Kartini Day), because feminism is too broad and diverse of a movement to be celebrated with just one single day and through just a single person.