Rethinking Kartini’s Legacy

Hariati Sinaga
6 min readApr 20, 2018


Children or students wear traditional dresses. Schools hold competitions on who wear them best. Sometimes adults do the same at their workplaces. This is what usually Indonesian people do in celebrating The Kartini Day every April 21. The Kartini Day is celebrated in remembrance of Kartini and her legacy on the emancipation of Indonesian women. Although many critics have highlighted how such way of celebration significantly reduces the important works done by Kartini, she remains to be an important figure for Indonesian people due to her works on women’s emancipation. While Kartini’s important work is not to be overlooked, it is, however, somewhat misguided to claim that women’s equality did not exist before Kartini. In fact, the kind of emancipation put forward by Kartini reflects a certain kind of women’s empowerment that has a colonial notion. In the spirit of decolonizing knowledge, it is our responsibility to disrupt this admission.

Kartini, born in Central Java on April 21 1879, was a daughter to an aristocratic Javanese family. Having an educated father, the Regent of Jepara, who spoke Dutch fluently as well as the close relationship between the Javanese aristocrats to the Dutch colonial administration imply a certain privilege for Kartini. She attended a Dutch elementary school and was able to access Western education. Through this process, she was able to have social connections with members of colonial Dutch elites. However, her father then decided to withdraw Kartini from schooling, and to keep her imprisoned within the compound of the regency’s house. Many would think this is a contradictory move from her father. Nevertheless, it actually goes in line with the society’s expectation on women of Kartini’s class and time. Her father did so to prepare Kartini to become the chief wife of high Javanese officials.

Raden Ajeng Kartini. Source: collection of Tropenmuseum

Given her situations, it is not surprising that Kartini was prominently focal to the issues on women’s rights and children, particularly regarding access to Western education. Being involved in a polygamous marriage herself, Kartini also criticized polygamy. It is probably because of this that the feminist heroine is continuously countering criticisms, which call for reassessing her works and the relevance for contemporary feminist movement in Indonesia. Some opposing voices associate Kartini’s prominent figure to the gender norms imposed during the Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

In this piece of rethinking Kartini, I will not focus on what critics have said on the seemingly limited nature of her works. Nor will I devote to the issue on gender norms during Suharto’s authoritarian regime and the state’s focus on Kartini’s womanhood. Instead, the demand of Kartini to extend Western education to women and children will be the point of departure of my critic in this piece. Nonetheless, my attempt is not to justify the attempt of political Islamist agenda in Indonesia in pushing forward Islamic nationalism in feminist movement in Indonesia. Rather, I aim to highlight the feminist values, which had actually been in part of Indonesia’s identities long before the country was colonized and received religious influences.

Indonesia was firstly exposed to Western education, particularly formal education, through the Dutch colonization. In order to assess this impact, we might want to seek theoretical explanations offered by postcolonial scholars as well as scholars of Colonialty/Modernity. Driven by the anti-colonial spirit and decolonizing thinking, theorists in these bodies of scholarship conclude that Western imperialism have not only entailed physical slavery and colonial violence, but also resulted in epistemic violence to the colonized worlds. The latter means that Western colonization torn apart the ontology and epistemology of the colonized societies (e.g. the indigenous people). As a result, what is considered as knowledge is a Western knowledge and Western way of knowing. The legacy of Western imperialism remains intact in our contemporary’s knowledge production.

Take the case of my ethnic tribe, the Toba-Batak people. Historically speaking, Toba-Batak is considered as descendants of Proto-Malayan tribe. Toba-Batak people speak a distinct language and have a writing system, both of which belong to Austronesian languages. As such, the ethnic tribe is actually literate in its own terms. This also allows the people to code the familial clan lines as well as the social system of the Toba-Batak meticulously. The knowledge system of the Toba-Batak people constitutes the interconnected aspects of spiritual values and social system. This contradicts to Western perspective on indigenous tribes as barbaric and uncivilized. At the time, the Orientalist approach taken by Dutch rationalized such portrayals of people in the East Indies, including the indigenous tribes. Colonization brought along the discourses on the colonized “Others”, which also shape how the colonized societies think about themselves.

Against this backdrop, Western education offered in the colonies normalize and formalize Western ontologies and epistemologies. The classification between the educated and the non-educated is made based on Western terms. For colonized societies, this means rejecting their own terms on how they see the world and how they approach this knowledge. To put it simply, it means rejecting who they are according to their own terms.

Dutch colonization brought along the discourse of modernity. Understanding this colonial encounter in the broader discussions of Western imperialism leads us to the conclusions, that: (1) colonization took away the indigenous knowledge and contributed to epistemic violence against the colonized societies; (2) colonization imposed modernity as a mainstream discourse, negating it to indigeneity, deemed as barbaric and uncivilized under Western eyes. The modernity concept is a gendered one. The concept comes along with certain gender roles and gender relations. One prominent example is the concept of a modern woman, which among others implies a feature of a good educated housewife. Access to education for a modern woman at the time was seen as a way to make her a good housewife. This certainly has a class aspect. And during Kartini’s time, there was also a racial aspect to it. One thing for sure is that the concept of a modern woman is a part of the cis heteronormative patriarchy parcel imposed through Dutch colonization.

So, what it means when Kartini demanded for extending children’s and women’s access to Western education? As I mentioned above, this advocacy by Kartini could be understood within her socio-historical contexts. Nonetheless, when we employ a decolonial perspective to her demand, it basically means ripping the very core identities of Indonesian people apart. Elsewhere I discussed about how Indonesian ethnic tribes practice gender system that to certain extent deviates from the cis heteronormative patriarchy, alongside their modern identities. This somewhat deviant gender system actually serves as a residue of the pre-colonial era, since colonization and religious influences put pressures to the indigenous people to compromise their gender systems. Long before the colonial and religious influences, women held an equal position in certain tribes, while an absolute gender binary did not exist in the others. Further, not only Kartini’s demand implies rejecting the very core identities of Indonesian people, her call for women’s access to Western education also suggests the aim to be a modern woman according to Western thinking.

One way to interpret this conjuncture is by looking at how the post-colonial government articulates this effect within the process of the post-colonial nation-building. Constructing a modern national identity also means undermining the various cultural identities of the indigenous people. Because, even when colonization was over, post-colonial Indonesia still opts for creating a modern nation, a feature that has a colonial notion. Making Kartini as a national heroine goes well with the intention of Sukarno administration. In fact, by declaring Kartini as a national figure, the post-colonial government killed two birds in one stone. First, the post-colonial Indonesia needed a role model for the national women’s movement. Kartini, often depicted wearing kebaya Jawa (Javanese kebaya), is viewed suitable for this position, and this coincided with the attempt of the post-colonial government at the time to make kebaya Jawa as a national identity. Second, of course it is not only because of her wearing kebaya Jawa that makes Kartini to be deemed fit as a national heroine. Her thinking on widening access for children and women to Western education corresponds to a modern post-colonial nation-building.