Illustration by Daniella Syakhirina

Kartini Was a Feminist Hero. So Why Is Her Holiday All About Beauty Pageants and Cooking Classes?

Seriously.

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21 April 2017, 7:30am

Illustration by Daniella Syakhirina

I'm just going to come out and say it: I hate Kartini Day. 

Now, wait, before you get all mad, notice that I didn't say I hate Kartini—the actual woman. She's awesome. No, I hate the holiday and what it's become in Indonesia. Why? Let me explain. 

I, like a lot of Indonesians, went to a state school where young women like myself had to celebrate Kartini Day with a series of competitions that ranged from the domestic (sewing! cooking!) to the objectifying (beauty pageants! makeup contests!). 

Every year, the teachers would make all the girls dress up in fancy traditional costumes and perform cultural dances before the school. So every year there was Husna—looking beautiful as always in a stunning Balinese outfit with gold thread. Her lips were the brightest red, her dance moves the most precise. 

And then there was me in some second-hand kebaya, hiding behind other girls' hair, which was always piled up in a massive sanggul bun.

"Why didn't you say anything earlier?" my grandmother would always complain in her strong Sundanese accent. "The teacher probably told you last week. If you had said anything, we would've had enough time to rent some clothes."

I hated how Kartini Day meant spending a bunch of money to rent a traditional dress and buy a lot of makeup. I hated how it reminded me that my mom wasn't around, how I had no one to borrow this stuff from, or to teach me how to apply lipstick, or bake a cake, or sew. 

"People know Kartini created the first school for girls [in Indonesia]. But she was more than that."—Maesy Angelina

I lost every Kartini Day competition. If the size of your sanggul bun or the flavor of your MSG-filled food was the sign of a real woman, then I guess I'll never be one because I'm still terrible at that stuff. 

But here's the real reason I hate Kartini Day: the way we celebrate it. Why the hell are we honoring the life of Indonesia's foremost women's empowerment figure with cooking competitions and beauty pageants in the first place? Doesn't that seem really wrong to anyone else? 

Turns out I'm not alone. 

"Why do we associate Kartini with a celebration that concerns clothes and domestic things?" said Maesy Angelina, a feminist and the co-owner of the independent book store POST. "Why is women's empowerment always presented through these very narrow concepts like beauty pageants that objectify women or a bunch of competitions on domestic chores? Kartini was more than that!"

Maesy thinks that this idea, the insistence that we are "honoring" Kartini with a bunch of events that only reinforce traditional gender roles, is dangerous. It undermines the very ideals and beliefs of the woman it aims to celebrate, she said. 

"If we only celebrate Kartini as an icon in a cooking competition or as a reason to for children to wear traditional clothes, then the holiday is just irrelevant," Maesy said. "People know Kartini created the first school for girls [in Indonesia]. But she was more than that. Her letters were pretty radical [for the time] and she did a lot more than just start a school."

Here's some stuff about Kartini people either forgot or decided to ignore: She was a Raden, which, to those who didn't grow up in Indonesia, means she was a royal. She was the daughter of a local official, but instead of acting all high and important as a member of the upper crust of Javanese society (which was super classiest at the time) she rebelled against the idea. 

Kartini, in letters to her radical feminist pen pal Estella H. Zeehandelaar, would write about the impact of Dutch colonialism on gender and class, and discuss the struggles of women of color like her against the white colonizers. She opposed the way Javanese society seemed to put barriers in women's way instead of helping them rise up. She hated how women were forced into polygamous marriages with men they didn't love. She was, at the time, expressing some pretty radical shit. 

She was against Java's class system from a young age. People were supposed to call her "Raden Ayu Kartini" because of her royal blood. But she was all "just call me Kartini," because all that royalty stuff was just another part of the same system that she was rebelling against. 

Look, there is nothing wrong with a woman learning how to cook, or sew, or become a housewife. Just like there is nothing wrong with a woman who wants to scuba dive, or ride bikes all day, or breed catfish for a living. So then why is only one of these ideas consistently reinforced on Kartini Day?

So imagine how Kartini would feel if she heard songs with lyrics like "Ibu Kartini, putri sejati," ("Our mother Kartini, a true princess"), sung in her honor. How do you think she would feel about her name being used to advertise makeup competitions and beauty pageants where young girls perform dances that were invented for the Javanese royal court?

And what the hell is a "true princess" anyway? Are there some fake princesses running around Indonesia that we need to be concerned about? Doesn't the phrase sort of pigeonhole girls as "princesses" instead of, I don't know, totally bad ass warriors fighting the good fight against the patriarchy? 

"Kartini wouldn't be too happy with a song that calls her 'the princess of Indonesia,'" Maesy said. "She wasn't into classism. That was about where and how you were born. She didn't think it defined you as a person. Hopefully, someone else out there sees the kind of radical ideas that Kartini was trying to bring to Indonesia." 

Look, there is nothing wrong with a woman learning how to cook, or sew, or become a housewife. Just like there is nothing wrong with a woman who wants to scuba dive, or ride bikes all day, or breed catfish for a living. So then why is only one of these ideas consistently reinforced on Kartini Day? 

Gea Citta, a friend of mine and a philosophy student at the University of Indonesia, once told me that she was fed up with all this talk of a "woman's fate" that gets brought up on Kartini Day. 

"Happy Kartini's Day! Go after your dreams but don't forget about your fate as a woman," she recalled. "When this word 'fate' ['kodrat'] is uttered, it is usually associated with the single and final goal of being a 'true woman': becoming a mother, serving your husband, and doing chores. 

"To me, this definition of a true woman contradicts the spirit of self-liberation that was implied in so many of Kartini's letters."

I'm going to be even more blunt: if you need to focus your life on primping, doing domestic chores, and having kids in order to become a "true woman" then to hell with that, I'll stay a "fake woman" or whatever you want to call me. The only "fate" I want to talk about is women being treated as a man's equal. 

When Kartini Day becomes about something that Kartini would actually have wanted to celebrate, then I'm 100 percent down. Until then, I've had my fill of fancy kebayas and cooking classes. 

"Kartini Day shouldn't be just a nostalgic celebration of a cult figure, but something that's relevant to current Indonesian women, both living in the cities and rural areas." Maesy said.