Today is a special day in Indonesia: Hari Kartini. A national holiday where young girls and women dress up in Javanese kebaya and participate in fashion shows and cooking competitions. Alongside this, there are events held by both government and non-government organisations: talks, free mammograms, and workshops. Activists take to the streets for women’s issues around education, working conditions, domestic violence, and maternal healthcare. This all occurs on the birthday of a woman regarded as one of ‘Indonesia’s first feminists’, born over 100 years ago in Java. But who really is Kartini?

Kartini 1Her Story

Born into an aristocratic Javanese family during Dutch colonial rule, Raden Ajeng Kartini received a Dutch education until the age of 12, when it was common for girls to be ‘secluded’ as they went through puberty. Despite this, Kartini continued to learn independently, with the assistance of Marie Ovink-Soer, the wife of a Dutch regent. She gained access to a plethora of Dutch books, newspapers and articles in Ovnik-Soer’s library, and her previous Dutch schooling allowed her to communicate with pen pals in the Netherlands. Through these letters, she exchanged ideas about women’s emancipation with her friends abroad and produced over a hundred short stories, memorandums and ethnographic works in which she expressed her opposition to polygamous marriage, advocated for the education of young girls, described life under colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies, and shared visions for the future of women. But is this why Indonesia celebrates her in a national holiday?

Changing Depictions Through Time

Kartini’s birthday became a national day of celebration in 1964, well into Sukarno’s presidency. Hari Kartini was championed to the public as a symbol of Indonesian nationalism and the struggle against colonial rule. This was important to the newly-independent Indonesia, and using the Kartini platform to promote this vision among young Indonesian women was considered part of the nation-building process during Sukarno’s time. Fast-forward a few years into Suharto’s era, and we find the celebration of this day transformed. The sexual politics propagated by the ‘Gerwani myth’ under the Suharto regime saw Kartini represented as the ‘ideal woman’ – a submissive wife and dutiful mother. Hari Kartini became Hari Ibu, and we began to see the rise of the tight kebaya costumes and domestic activities, remnants of which are ever present in reformasi Indonesia today.

Changing depictions of history by different governments appears to be a common practice. The focus on ANZAC Day in Australia, for example, has also shifted through time. Commemorating the day Australia ‘lost’ a war has been represented as Australia’s first overseas ‘debut’ as a ‘federated’ nation, a struggle for freedom, and a reflection of our close connection with the Asia-Pacific region in Kokoda, respectively. Successive administrations have in this way shaped the meaning of ANZAC Day to serve a particular political function. Whether you agree or disagree with the intentions behind these representations is another question altogether, but one thing remains true: commemorative traditions are powerful for promoting certain agendas and starting conversations.

Is Hari Kartini still relevant today?

Kartini’s vision for women’s emancipation and education has seen much success over the years. Indonesian girls have on average higher enrolment rates in primary and secondary schools than boys, and the literacy rate of women aged 15+ was 90% in 2011 (World Bank, 2011). It is true that Indonesian women enjoy many freedoms today that were oppressed in previous generations, including seeing the election of a female President. But this does not mean the struggle has ended. For example, women applying to the National Police are forced to undergo degrading virginity testing, and despite constitutional protection against gender discrimination, according to a 2013 Press Release from Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), there have been approximately 342 discriminatory laws passed on a national and local level since 1999.

While commemorative days such as Hari Kartini are great platforms for celebrating past achievements, we should also be wary of where we’ve fallen short and the work yet to do. Kartini’s story, which is really that of a privileged Javanese woman with a Western education, does not represent all Indonesian women today. We need to hear from non-Javanese women, poor women, working women, trans women, survivors of sexual violence, and others – those who do not have the access to resources and networks Kartini did to make her voice heard. We need to stop thinking about Hari Kartini as what a woman ‘should’ be, and start thinking about what women ‘could’ be, and the barriers to achieving this. We need to recognise the massive potential in an essential part of our population, rather than constrict it to boxes that come in the shape of tight kebaya and cooking competitions. This is by no means a small task, but if Indonesia is serious about the emancipation of women, it must re-assess what a national day for women truly means.

Lessons for the Future

The imperative to re-examine the women’s movement does not stop in Indonesia. When I rack my brain to find a date where we celebrate women in Australia, I ashamedly cannot name a single national day: we simply do not have one. Whilst in Australia, many women have better access to education and opportunities frequently denied to most of our sisters around the world, it is easy to forget how much further there is to go. Domestic violence, workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, a lack of affordable childcare and a host of other issues are faced by Australian women every day. Linear narratives about “how far we’ve come” that ignore ongoing problems are reflective of the persistence of machismo and patriarchal discourse which dominates both Indonesia and Australia’s understanding of women’s issues. This can only change if we actively contest these dominant voices and narratives with open, inclusive and critical discussion with all sectors of society.

However, if there’s anything we’ve learnt about the way national days are shaped and promoted, the debate and discussion such days generate in the public domain and the impact it has on initiating an active discourse on a topic is undeniable. They have the potential to set new agendas and centre the national psyche on the inertia of women’s continual struggle for basic rights here and everywhere. Perhaps we in Australia should take a leaf out of Indonesia’s book and dig deep into our history to find a date to mark a renewed conversation for the continued struggle of women in the world today.