Raden Ayu (Ajoe) Kartini, (April 21, 1879–September 13, 1904), was a prominent Javanese and an Indonesian national heroine. Kartini is known as a pioneer in the area of women’s rights for native Indonesians.
Kartini was born into an aristrocatic Javanese family in a time when Java was still part of the Dutch colony, the Dutch East Indies. Kartini’s father, Raden Mas Sosroningrat, became Regency Chief of Jepara, and her mother was Raden Mas’ first wife, but not the most important one. At this time, polygamy was a common practice among the nobility.
Kartini’s father, RMAA Sosroningrat, was originally the district chief of Mayong. Her mother was MA Ngasirah, the daughter of Kyai Haji Madirono, a teacher of religion in Teluwakur, Jepara, and Nyai Haji Siti Aminah. At that time, colonial regulations specified that a Regency Chief must marry a member of the nobility and because MA Ngasirah was not of sufficiently high nobility, her father married a second time to Raden Ajeng Woerjan (Moerjam), a direct descendant of the Raja of Madura. After this second marriage, Kartini’s father was elevated to Regency Chief of Jepara, replacing his second wife’s own father, RAA Tjitrowikromo.
Kartini was the fifth child and eldest daughter in a family of eleven, including half siblings. She was born into a family with a strong intellectual tradition. Her grandfather, Pangeran Ario Tjondronegoro IV, became a Regency Chief at the age of 25 while Kartini’s older brother Sosrokartono was an accomplished linguist.
Kartini’s family allowed her to attend school until she was 12 years old. Here, among other subjects, she learnt to speak fluent Dutch, an unusual accomplishment for Javanese women at the time. After she turned 12 she was ‘secluded’ at home, a common practice among Javanese nobility, to prepare young girls for their marriage. During seclusion girls were was not allowed to leave their parents’ house until they were married, at which point authority over them was transferred to their husbands. Kartini’s father was more lenient than some during his daughter’s seclusion, giving her such privileges as embroidery lessons and occasional appearances in public for special events.
During her seclusion, Kartini continued to educate herself on her own. Because Kartini could speak Dutch, she acquired several Dutch pen friends. One of them, a girl by the name of Rosa Abendanon, became her very close friend. Books, newspapers and European magazines fed Kartini’s interest in European feminist thinking, and fostered the desire to improve the conditions of indigenous women, who at that time had a very low social status.
Kartini’s omnivorous reading included the Semarang newspaper De locomotief, edited by Pieter Brooshooft, as well as leestrommel, a set of magazines circulated by bookshops to subscribers. She also read cultural and scientific magazines as well as the Dutch women’s magazine De Hollandsche Lelie, to which she began to send contributions which were published. From her letters, it was clear that Kartini read everything with a great deal of attention and thoughtfulness. The books she had read before she was 20 included Max Havelaar and Love Letters by Multatuli. She also read De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force) by Louis Couperus, the works of Frederik van Eeden, Augusta de Witt, the Romantic-Feminist author Mrs Goekoop de-Jong Van Beek and an anti-war novel by Berta von Suttner, Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!). All were in Dutch.
Kartini’s concerns were not just in the area of the emancipation of women, but also the problems of her society. Kartini saw that the struggle for women to obtain their freedom, autonomy and legal equality was just part of a wider movement.
Kartini’s parents arranged her marriage to Raden Adipati Joyodiningrat, the Regency Chief of Rembang, who already had three wives. She was married on the 12 November 1903. This was against Kartini’s wishes, but she acquiesced to appease her ailing father. Her husband understood Kartini’s aims and allowed her to establish a school for women in the east porch of the Rembang Regency Office complex. Kartini’s only son was born on September 13, 1904. A few days later, Kartini died at the age of 25. She was buried in Bulu Village, Rembang.
Inspired by Kartini’s example, the Van Deventer family established the Kartini Foundation which built schools for women, ‘Kartini’s Schools’ in Semarang in 1912, followed by other women’s schools in Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Malang, Madiun, Cirebon and other areas.
In 1964, President Sukarno declared Kartini’s birth date, 21 April, as ‘Kartini Day’ – an Indonesian National Holiday. This decision has been criticised. It has been proposed that Kartini’s Day should be celebrated in conjunction with Indonesian Mothers Day, on 22 December so that the choice of Kartini as a national heroine would not overshadow other women who, unlike Kartini, took up arms to oppose the colonisers.
In contrast, those who recognise the significance of Kartini argue that not only was she a feminist who elevated the status of women in Indonesia, she was also a nationalist figure, with new ideas who struggled on behalf of her people, including her in the national struggle for independence.