Annee Lawrence is a Research Fellow (Adjunct) and teaches in Humanities at Western Sydney University, Australia. She lives in Sydney, and her research interests include ethics, aesthetics, alterity and form in the cross-cultural novel, writing as an embodied process, and Australian-Indonesian cross-cultural connection. Her doctoral thesis included a novel set in Australia and Indonesia and she has close family and friendship ties with Indonesia. Most recently, she has published in Griffith Review, New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, and Cultural Studies Review.
Dangerous woman? A danger
To whom? To what? She writes her
way to critique, to consciousness raising
through traces of anger, shame and grief.
Unmasks inequality, injustice, oppression.
If societies are made by humans, they can
be changed. She works for that change, her
emotions keep her moving, she puts her body
on the line, speaks truth to exoticism, tradition
and colonial power, stays true to
her chosen value, her chosen path of reform.
Raden Adjeng Kartini (1879-1904) remains a dangerous woman, and perhaps that is why hardly anyone outside Indonesia has even heard of her, let alone read the collection of letters she wrote in Dutch between 1899 and 1904. Today, the revolutionary richness of emotion, experience and intelligence expressed in her correspondence confounds any stereotype of what might have been on the mind of a young Javanese woman at that place and time. But perhaps there were many just like her, then and now, who were silenced or not heard because of the threat they posed to vested self interests in their respective societies.
Kartini’s powerful feminist, intellectual and nationalist legacy was created between 25 May 1899 and 14 September 1904. During that time, Kartini wrote to more than ten Dutch socialists, feminists and educationalists and, following her untimely death in childbirth in 1904, her letters were collected and published in Holland (in 1911), and in English in 1920. Within them she speaks to and exposes the social relations of power within the Javanese aristocracy and the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) colonial system, and presses the case for: Javanese education (for girls especially), an end to polygamy, greater agency for women in choosing a career and/or marriage, the training of more Javanese teachers, midwives and doctors, and the end of colonial domination and exploitation.
While Kartini did not live to benefit from or achieve many of the changes she dreamed of and set in motion, her four younger sisters – – Roekmini (1880-1951), Kardinah (1881-1971), Kartinah (1883-?) and Soematri (1888-1963) — became active proponents of the changes they collectively sought. And, arguably, her dream of freedom for the Javanese, which began as a trickle in her letters, and developed into a flow by the 1920s, turned into a torrent after the Japanese surrender and withdrawal from the Dutch East Indies in 1945.
Kartini was born in Jepara on the north coast of Central Java on 21 April 1879 and as the title, Raden Adjeng, indicates, she was part of an aristocratic Javanese family that was integral to the Dutch colonial administration. Her father, the Regent of Jepara, who was educated by a Dutch tutor in the 1860s, spoke Dutch fluently and was widely read in Western literature. He too educated his children, and so, from the age of six, Kartini and her sisters attended a Dutch elementary school where, on becoming sensitised to the cultural differences between European and Javanese ways of being, they fixed on having the same freedoms to follow a career as their Dutch schoolgirl friends.
A central aspect of Kartini’s life was the inspired hope shared with Kardinah and Roekmini – the two younger sisters closest to her in age — that modernity would deliver vocational training and meaningful paid work to Java’s women, and this would allow them to actively engage in the social and economic development of their country. The sisters referred to themselves as ‘the Clover Leaf,’ and this bond was strengthened when, at the age of twelve, they were forced to leave school and follow the tradition of being confined at home until they were married.
In the four painful years of seclusion that followed, the sisters read, studied, and made the acquaintance of several influential Dutch women and men with whom Kartini, as the main letter writer, maintained contact. They included Mevrouw Ovink-Soer — a socialist and feminist and wife of the NEI Assistant Resident who wrote for the Dutch women’s magazine, De Hollandsche Lelie. After taking out a subscription to the magazine, Kartini placed an ad for a penfriend and so began a correspondence with the radical Dutch feminist, Stella Zeehandelaar. A year later, in 1900, she met and began corresponding with J. H. Abendanon, the Director of Education, Industry and Religion in Java (from 4 March 1900 until 4 March 1905) and his Spanish wife, Rosita Abendanon-Mandri.
For Kartini, letter writing was a means of creative expression that linked her to a cosmopolitan world of books and philosophical ideas, and helped her to make meaning in relation to the embodied experiences of the family’s everyday lives. In the opening lines of her first letter to Stella Zeehandelaar (SZ), dated 25 May 1899, Kartini articulated her passionate desire to embrace modernity. She had just turned twenty.
I have so longed to make the acquaintance of a ‘modern girl’, the proud, independent girl whom I so much admire; who confidently steps through life, cheerfully and in high spirits, full of enthusiasm and commitment, working not just for her own benefit and happiness alone but also offering herself to the wider society, working for the good of her fellow human beings. I am burning with excitement about this new era and yes, I can say that, even though I will not experience it in the Indies, as regards my thoughts and feelings, I am not part of today’s Indies, but completely share those of my progressive white sisters in the far-off West.
(Letter to SZ, 25 May 1899, On Feminism and Nationalism, 23).
Kartini describes to Stella how, when she turned sixteen, the family finally broke with tradition and allowed the three sisters out into public again so they could attend festivities for the investiture of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. While her parents’ unconventional move did not pass unnoticed in society at the time, for Kartini the concession did not go far enough:
No, attending festivities or amusements were not what I had yearned for … I longed to be free to be able to be independent, to be able to make myself independent, not to have to be dependent on anyone, [and] … never to have to marry. (25)
The painful reality for the sisters was that tradition required that they marry and, as well as being denied the right to choose or even meeting their husband beforehand, there was also the Javanese aristocratic norm of polygamy which she deplored.
And who does not do this? And why would they not do so? It is no crime, nor is it a scandal… And can you imagine what hellish pain a woman must experience when her husband comes home with another whom she has to recognise as his lawful wife, her rival? He can torment her to death, mistreat her as much as he likes for as long as he chooses not to give her her freedom again; she can whistle to the wind for her rights! Everything for the man and nothing for the woman is our law and general belief.
(Letter to SZ, 6 November 1899, On Feminism and Nationalism, 34-35).
Although not revealed to Stella, the ‘Clover Leaf’ knew first hand the suffering within families due to the polygamous marriage arrangement because their own father had two wives: the woman Kartini called ‘mother’ was her step mother and the official first wife (Raden Ayu); and her biological mother was the second wife (selir).
Kartini’s ethical stance in her letters brings the collision between the public and private into focus when it becomes clear that ‘not only was there a real sense in which Kartini had to change the world to free herself, but that also personal autonomy had no moral meaning for Kartini if it were not projected as a universal right and ideal’ (Coté Letters from Kartini xvii). As her translator, Joost Coté, argues, Kartini strove to choose her own path, to assert her autonomy, and it is this ‘chosen value’ that ‘launches her into the uncertain ground of modernity’ (xxi).
Kartini’s letters were first collected and edited by J. H. Abendanon and published in Holland in 1911 as Door Duisternis Tot Licht (Through Darkness to Light). An English language version followed in 1920 under the (unfortunate) title, Letters of a Javanese Princess, and translations were later released in Malay (1922), Arabic (1926), Sundanese (1930), Javanese (1938), Indonesian (1938) and Japanese (1955). While this initial collection to ten interlocutors was edited (even censored) to protect the sensitivities of her close family, unabridged collections of Kartini’s letters (as well as those of her four younger sisters) have been translated into English by Joost Coté in recent decades. They include Letters from Kartini: An Indonesian Feminist, 1900-1904 (1992) – to Rosita Abendanon-Mandri; On Feminism and Nationalism: Kartini’s Letters to Stella Zeehandelaar 1899-1903 (2005); Realizing the Dream of R. A. Kartini: Her Sisters’ Letters from Colonial Java (2008); Kartini: The Complete Writings 1898-1904 (2015).
The letters map a period of growing emotional maturity, difficult choices and insightful reflection, alongside awareness of an emerging more enlightened colonial policy – the Ethical Policy — that supported greater education and a greater governing role for Indonesians, as well as implementation of agricultural improvements and development of an indigenous handicraft export industry.
Kartini’s access to Western education and absorption of the Enlightenment ideals of social equality and freedom led her to the conclusion that changes had to be made in Javanese society, particularly in regard to colonisation. In a letter to Stella, dated 13 January 1900, perhaps in response to questions from Stella on the topic, she writes:
I am very, very fond of the Dutch people, and I am grateful for much that we enjoy from them and because of them. Many, very many, of them we can call our best friends, but there are also very, very many who are hostile towards us for no other reason than that we dared to compete with them in terms of education and culture. They make this clear to us in very painful ways. ‘I am European, you are Javanese’ or, in other words, ‘I am the conqueror, you are the conquered’. Not just once, but several times, we are spoken to in broken Malay even though the person knew very well that we could speak the Dutch language….
Why is it that so many Hollanders find it unpleasant to converse with us in their own language? Oh, now I know, Dutch is too beautiful to be uttered by a brown mouth.
(On Feminism and Nationalism 50)
In the same letter Kartini expresses outrage at the inequalities and discrimination imposed by the system of apartheid that both exploited and humiliated but which, at the same time, relied on the Javanese aristocracy to maintain power.
Oh! Stella, I have had the opportunity to observe all kinds of situations in the Indies society, and as a matter of course I have looked behind the conventions of the world of public officials. There are ravines there so deep, Stella, that the very sight of them would make you dizzy! Oh God! The world is so full of misdeeds, full of such horrible atrocities! (50-51)
By 1900, Kartini was articulating a view that change for the Javanese would come with education, for ‘when the Javanese is educated he will no longer say “yes” and “amen” to everything that his superior chooses to impose on him’ (52). In order to explain the need for eventual emancipation, she makes a direct comparison between Javanese resistance to colonial domination and feminist resistance to patriarchal oppression in Europe:
Here it is just as with the women’s movement with you, the Javanese are emancipating themselves. And in the same way that your women and girls are being opposed by those who have been their masters for centuries, here the Javanese are being hindered in their development by their superiors.
Here it is only just beginning. … The battle will be fierce: the fighters will not only have to cope with their opponents but also the indifference of their own compatriots for whom they are taking up arms. And when the battle for emancipation of our men is in full flight, then the women will rise up. Poor men, what a lot you will to put up with. [One line was erased for the 1911 publication.]
Oh! How wonderful that we happen to be living in these times! In this period of transition from the old to the new. (52-3)
While Kartini valued her Dutch friends, and recognised that they held different and more enlightened views than many of their countrymen and women on the colonial project, as Hildred Geertz observes in her 1963 introduction to Letters of a Javanese Princess, she became increasingly keen to affirm Java’s ancient and rich civilisation as of ‘the highest value’, and something that ‘should not be abandoned for a shallow modernity’ (9).
The letters offer a snapshot of the interdependence of the Dutch colonisers and Java’s gentry as well as Kartini and Roekmini’s ongoing campaign to secure further education and training. Although almost succeeding in achieving this dream (first in Holland, and then in Jakarta), a combination of powerful forces highlighted innumerable risks in going ahead with their plan. The emotionality of the texts highlights the embodied materiality of family and daily life, Javanese cultural practices and politics, and the impacts of recurrent ill health, both physical and emotional, within their family. Time and again, Kartini reflects on the stratification of Javanese society under Dutch colonisation as well as her growing sense of an urgent need for Java to modernise which the colonial administration was not keen to advance. While the letters from her Dutch correspondents have not survived, what is remarkable in Kartini’s is their high degree of reflexivity and open critical analysis as, again and again, she engages the cross-cultural gap to enrich her political thinking and practice.
The utopian promise of modernity pushes Kartini to embrace its spirit despite the personal costs and the considerable pain this entails within her family. In her search for ‘a viable personal life’ she opens herself up to the contradictions between the political and philosophical implications of modernity and the traditions of Javanese society and, in doing so, courageously and publicly puts at risk her own self-esteem and quest for identity. As Hildred Geertz observes:
The confrontation between Western and Eastern cultures is a continuous, unending process of great difficulty and momentous significance. It is all the more painful because neither the Western nor the Oriental outlooks are single, consistent philosophies — both comprise within themselves conflicting, even warring, points of view. Within both … there are numerous alternative moral doctrines. (25)
Kartini was not naïve to the backlash that might incur as the reformist paths she and her sisters sought became more widely known. By the time of her death, however, the ‘Clover Leaf’ had already been shattered by two events that brought great emotional turmoil and suffering. These were the arranged marriage of Kardinah (Kleintje), and two years later, the arranged marriage of Kartini herself to the Regent of Rembang in 1901, a widower with six children and three wives.
Kartini’s letters, especially those written to Rosita Abendanon-Mandri, are intimate and express joy, pain, pleasure, love, despair, suffering, anguish and confusion in response to the twists and turns of their lives. In the aftermath of her death, the sisters assumed the task of realising their shared dream of educational reform and continued as ‘active participants in both the political and cultural domain’ (Realizing the Dream of R. A. Kartini 2). They exerted greater agency in relation to marriage and ‘fought to transform their marriages into a new model for Javanese woman in general’. While Roekmini was successful in arranging her own marriage, the two youngest women, who were three and eight years younger than Roekmini, ‘already reflect a different age’ (12). As Cote observes:
They benefited from the pioneers, assumed attending school as a right, enjoyed extra postelementary classes, and gaily flaunted their learning of languages and geography without feeling, as their older sisters did, the heavy weight of the privilege and of the battle between tradition and modernity [their older sisters] had fought. In particular, … [the youngest] Soematri seems to represent the modern age … [as her correspondence extends to] just a few years before the end of colonialism (13).
In an era of emerging nationalism, significant cultural and social upheaval, and the eventual declaration of Indonesian independence by republicans on 17 August 1945, the four surviving sisters’ own letters link to and reflect the ‘much broader narrative of cultural change’ that was to come (2).
In just four years, Kartini showed that emotions are dangerous. Emotions move her in her struggle for education for women and for the Javanese to innovation. Emotions – anger, shame, humiliation, grief and despair – must be felt and faced, and when that is done, she is able to move beyond decrying injustice to finding new pathways. This is why her felt passion and activism, clarity and perception, continue to resonate because, as Sara Ahmed argues, ‘The emotional struggles against injustice are … about how we are moved by feelings into a different relation to the norms that we wish to contest, or the wounds we wish to heal’ (201).
Kartini’s expressions of emotion to her friends and mentors arise out of layers of injustice and inequality. They lead her to a consciousness of what needs to be done and set in motion the steps to its accomplishment. Her European interlocutors encourage her dreams and offer a community of belief and moral and practical support. The most direct and measurable achievement will be the setting up of a string of schools for girls.
It is because Kartini’s letters have survived and remained in circulation that her voice as one of Indonesia’s first feminists continues to speak to the present. Kartini and the ‘Clover Leaf’ and their two younger sisters had an active role in educating and inspiring later generations of feminists and nationalists, and laid the foundation for the emergence of the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) in the early 1950s, which grew to an estimated 3 million members by 1965.
In 1964 Kartini was recognised by President Soekarno as a national hero (pahlawan national) and every year on her birthday — 21 April – Indonesia celebrates Kartini Day. Like all dangerous women, however, while her legacy has been poured over –and debated, contested, neglected, reinvented and co-opted — it remains a powerful reminder that changing society is both difficult and possible.
 Coté cites Agnes Heller’s definition of a chosen value as one ‘conceived of as superior, essential, real and rational,’ and which stands in contrast to ‘the accepted values of traditional society’ (1992, xxi).
 Shockingly, Gerwani would be decimated in 1965 following the coup that deposed first President Soekarno, launched President Suharto’s thirty-two years of dictatorship, and unleashed the carrying out of massacres, torture and imprisonment on an unknown number (more than 500,000) of a generation of progressive Indonesians including writers, journalists, farmers, university teachers, doctors. The United States CIA provided weapons and names, and the Indonesian military and local militias carried out the deeds. The world stood by and said and did nothing (as they would years later in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and other places in South and Central America).
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Coté, Joost, ed. and trans. Kartini: The Complete Writings 1898-1904. Clayton, Vic.: Monash Asia Institute, 2015.
Coté, Joost, ed. and trans. On Feminism and Nationalism: Kartini’s Letters to Stella Zeehandelaar 1899-1903. Clayton, Vic.: Monash Asia Institute, 2005.
Coté, Joost, ed. and trans. Realizing the Dream of R. A. Kartini: Her Sisters’ Letters from Colonial Java. Athens, OH/Leiden: Ohio University Press/KITLV Press, 2008.
Coté, Joost, ed. and trans. Letters from Kartini: An Indonesian Feminist, 1900-1904. Clayton, Vic.: Monash Asia Institute, 1992.
Geertz, Hildred, ed. Letters of a Javanese Princess. Trans. A. L. Symmers, 1920. New York: Norton, 1964.
Heller, Agnes. The Power of Shame. London: RKP, 1985.