What would Kartini say if she were here?

by Fitri Bintang Timur

Approaching the commemoration day of Kartini, the national heroine, which falls on April 21, the Women Corps of the Indonesian Military (Wanita TNI) will hold a talk show on health and beauty.

Meanwhile civil servants at the Defense Ministry have organized a singing contest as a tribute. In Semarang, 15 police women from the National Police (Polri) of Central Java Province will put on a catwalk show in a mall.

Other female police personnel will use traditional clothes at work. Upon hearing the news, one question comes to mind: Since when was Kartini famous for her health, beauty, clothes and singing voice?

As a reminder, Kartini rose to prominence for her thoughts and writings, which are compiled in Letters of a Javanese Princess (1920). She pursued the highest possible level of education for women at that time, Sekolah Rakyat (Public School), until the maximum age of 12 years old.  

At first, Kartini dreamed of becoming a medical doctor, and to obtain that dream she wanted to go to the Netherlands where she thought that women were allowed to pursue the same education as men. However, her family kept her at home as part of Javanese royal tradition (pingitan) to prepare her for marriage. The custom was that women needed to marry, bear children, and be a good mother and wife. Sadly, this doctrine is still chorused to modern Indonesian women nowadays.

Kartini despised the feudal tradition she was born into. Her father, who at that time held the rank of Jepara district chief, R.M.A.A. Sosroningrat, needed to marry a second wife because his official rank required him to wed a lady from comparable social level, while Kartini’s mother was seen as lesser because she was only a daughter of a cleric.

This experience made Kartini stand against polygamy. However, she was powerless when her family finally forced her to marry into the royal blood of K.R.M. Adipati Djojo Adhiningrat as his fourth wife.

Kartini had little patience to keep the pose of a noble. In a letter to one of her correspondents in the Netherlands, Estelle Zeehandelaar, dated Aug. 18, 1899, Kartini stated, “One should speak softly so that only those who are near can hear. When talking to elders and people from a higher social level, one must use high [Javanese] language. Moreover for women, they ought to walk slowly with short steps. The movement should be like a snail. If a woman walks fast, then people will call her a wild horse as an insult.”

From these notes, if Kartini was a member of the security services, do you think she would have joined a singing contest, catwalk or beauty talk show? With her admirable free will, I doubt whether she would have.

On the contrary, she would have been the one to ask when the opportunity to access a military academy or higher training would be coming along. She would have also asked why the chief of staff was always male, why skirt was part of her uniform, and whether people really wanted to see her working as a coffee maker. She would have asked what she could do to provide more security to other women.

What could she do to counter rape on public transport? Was it fair that polygamy was not allowed only for men with government official ranks but not for all people? Was it also fair that the security forces were dominated by the Javanese and Javanese culture? And so on. She would have been progressive, empowered, knowledgeable and continuously seeking ways on how to make life better for women and society as whole. In this globally linked world, she might be a part of the UN peacekeeper personnel, not only as observer.

What would have made Kartini special today is that after she had inquired about those issues and did what she needed to do, she would have not felt less feminine.

She might even have pondered the relation between being beautiful with being professional when she saw the title of the talk show: “By looking beautiful, healthy and elegant, we raise professionalism as Wanita TNI”.
Of course, not all Kartini commemorations convened by women in the security sector are done to show that they are able to follow feminine stereotypes.There were many gender-neutral events like this year’s blood donation held by the Navy Base in Bali and the reforestation of Merapi volcano by TNI and Polri women of Yogyakarta last year. Therefore let’s see what these women can do in the future for themselves and for the people.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research is on gender and security studies.
Published in Jakarta Post, 21 April 2012

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