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 - Sebastiaan Coops -

Without ever knowing it, she became one of the most well read Dutch-language authors. Quite an achievement for a woman who never set foot in the Netherlands, and who, in her time as a woman of colour, was considered inferior to the Dutch. Her name was Raden Adjeng Kartini (1879-1904), or as she stated: "Just call me Kartini - that's my name." She is known for her letters, in which she expressed her thoughts on women's emancipation and colonialism. The sharpness of her letters serves as a milestone in the history of women's emancipation and provided many Dutch people with a new insight into their own colonial politics with its underlying racism. 

Kartini grew up in a country where everyone had to be kept in check. In numerous anecdotes, she describes how Javanese people are kept small by the Dutch: "Oh, now I understand why they are against the development of the Javanese. When the Javanese are developed, they will no longer say yes and amen to everything that its superiors choose to impose on them." 

She also writes about another form of oppression: the strict Javanese etiquette that deprives her of all freedom to study, work, leave her house before marriage, or engage in informal friendships. She fought against: "[...] the old inherited thoughts, adats, that are no longer suitable for us Javanese of the future. [...] It's wonderful to have an ideal. Call us crazy, fools, whatever you want; we cannot do otherwise." 

From this, her fighting spirit arises. When she spoke with a classmate about what she wanted to be in the future, she didn't know. When she asked her father, he could only tell her that she would become a married woman. In response, she rebelled by devouring books for years and resisting all restrictions to her freedom. 

Although she has many admirers, there is also criticism of the prominent place she occupies in the historical canon of women's emancipation. Kartini made choices that contradicted her beliefs. She entered into a polygamous marriage and did not pursue further education. This, while other women (of nobility, too) were willing to take grand actions against colonization and for women's emancipation. Consider Raden Dewi Sartika (1884-1947), a contemporary of Kartini who, in 1904, on her own initiative, founded the very first women's school. Also, Cut Nja Dinh (1848-1908), who took a radical stance during the Aceh War by convincing her husband not to support Dutch authority and surviving in the jungle with a guerrilla army after his death. Or Martha Christina Tiahahu (1800-1818), a Moluccan freedom fighter. Together with her father, she successfully fought against the Dutch. She lost her life after being captured. 

What plays a role in the criticism of Kartini is certainly how she is commemorated in Indonesia, where women on Kartini Day (April 21) showcase themselves in traditional attire (the attire that Kartini considered so restrictive). This has given her image a somewhat old-fashioned and traditional aura. 

Kartini's fame comes not from her actions but from her words. Her letters resonated with eloquence, humor, and sharpness. They are still enjoyable to read and could actually change public opinion in her time. Finally, the story of the oppressed could be heard by the oppressor. This justifies her prominent place in the canon. 


Image: Charls & Co. (Bodjong-Semarang) (date unknown) KITLV 15468. Museum Nasional Indonesia, Jakarta, Indonesia.


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