Kartini Day

Kartini Wasn't Indonesia's Only Feminist Icon. Here's Some Other Women We Need to Celebrate

Kartini is best-known for her commitment to the education of young women. But she wasn't alone.
April 21, 2017, 11:00am
Illustration by Ilham Kurniawan

My grandmother, a 75-year-old woman from Padang, West Sumatra, once told me that her dreams died when she married my grandfather more than a half-century ago. She was living in Bandung, West Java, when he proposed. She had just turned 20 and she was in her junior year of studying history at the Indonesia University of Education (IKIP) when my grandfather popped the question. She said yes.

And just like that, her post-university dreams were put on ice… forever.

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"I dropped everything to marry that guy," she told me. "After we got married, we moved around a lot because he's in the army. University and everything else got moved to the back of my mind. Nothing else mattered anymore. That's my role as a woman."

My other grandmother had a similar story. She was studying to be the first female doctor in her province when she dropped out during her final year of medical school to marry my grandfather. She was then pregnant with my mother and her studying days were over.

Now, here was are, decades later, and it's still common to see young girls getting married when they're still children to most of the world. It's a stark reminder of how much work still needs to be done and it's as good a place as any to start on our list of Indonesia's other feminist heroes we should also honor and celebrate on Kartini Day.

Roehana Koeddoes

Roehana Koeddoes founded a newspaper, a school, and became an award-winning journalist and author despite never receiving a formal education. She was born way back in 1884 in a small town near Padang, West Sumatra. Her father worked for the government and made sure that if Roehana wasn't going to be enrolled in school that she at least received an education at home.

Her home schooling instilled Roehana with a serious love of education. By 1911, she had opened a school (Sekolah Kerajinan Amal Setia) with the help of her Dutch friends. By 1912, she was Indonesia's first female journalist and the founder of Sunting Melayua newspaper where the majority of the staff were women.

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Roehana was a tireless advocate for the education of women. She once wrote, "women will always be women, with all their skills and responsibilities. What needs to be changed is better education and better treatment for them." But she was just one of the women working to provide an education for young girls.

Dewi Sartika

Dewi Sartika was born to a wealthy family in Bandung, West Java, the same year as Roehana. The difference was that unlike Roehana, Dewi was able to receive a formal education. But like Roehana, Dewi spent her life focused on better the lives of young women. She founded her own school when she was just 20 years old. Less than a decade later, there were branches of her Sekolah Kaoetamaan Isteri in half the cities and districts in West Java. A few years later, you could find a branch in every city and district in the province.

Her work was aided, in no small part, by Raden Ayu Lasminingrat, a fellow women's education advocate. Together, the two women opened new schools across Garut, a sizable district in West Java. Today, only Dewi Sartika has been recognized for her contributions to women's education and empowerment. She was named a national hero in 1966.

Siti Aisyah We Tenriolle

Siti Aisyah We Tenriolle was a queen, a real life queen, when she made a deal with the Dutch who ran the colonial Dutch East Indies. Her kingdom, the seafaring Bugis people, who were so feared as pirates that their name is allegedly the source of Westerners' fear of the "boogie man," wouldn't fight the Dutch as long as they built some schools for both boys and girls.

She was an amazing woman, yet her name, like many of the women on this list, rarely gets mentioned when we talk about women's empowerment in Indonesia.

Why we should celebrate more than just Kartini on Kartini Day

No one is better known in Indonesia for their work empowering women than Kartini. And there's a good reason for that. Kartini is one of our few national heroes who never fought in a battle or killed a bunch of people in a war. Instead, she is celebrated for her words, writing extensively of the role education played in better women's lives.

Her letters, many of which she wrote while being groomed for an arranged marriage to a Javanese nobleman, were collected in a book published by the Ministry of Education. These letters, which were written in Dutch and covered everything from her thoughts on polygamy and arranged marriages, to the role of class divisions in keeping women down, were behind her rise to become Indonesia's most-prominent women's rights figure.

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But as she rose to outshine her fellow feminist icons, Kartini's life sadly became trivialized during Gen. Suharto's New Order as our leaders twisted her image into that of the "ideal housewife." It's why today Indonesians celebrate Kartini Day with beauty pageants and cooking competitions instead of honoring the woman for her real work. This state-sponsored perversion of Kartini's message and her life's work has been written about extensively in Indonesia.

"In Indonesia, the state has a central role in the social construction of womanhood," wrote Julia Suryakusuma in her book State Ibuism: The Social Construction of Womanhood in the Indonesian New Order. "And it is essential to take into account the relative autonomy, pervasiveness of the state, and the degree of control it exercised, as well as the construction of an ideology to buttress and legitimize power."

And this, in part, is why we should recognize the work of other women as well. Ask anyone on the street to list the pioneers of female education and activism and, for most, the list begins where it ends, with Kartini. But if we look back at history, we can find a host of women who led brave and inspiring lives. Women like Keumalahayati, the Acehnese navy admiral, Auw Tjoei Lan, the anti-human trafficking crusader, and Maria Walanda Maramis, who fought for women's right to vote. We need to realize that Indonesia is full of strong, independent women—and that it's always been that way.

I once asked my grandmother what she thought of Kartini. She laughed.

"Kartini is Kartini, and I was I," she said. "We had our own revolution with our own reasons back then, and it was too time-consuming. So we didn't have time to think about what others had done and get inspired, because we may had already done it ourselves or we were maybe about to do it."