Kartini as a Source of Historical and Contemporary Inspiration in Indonesia

Indonesian cinemas on 19 April, two days before the national holiday to celebrate her birth. To mark the screening of the film in Melbourne in May, the Indonesia Forum hosted a panel discussion titled ‘The film Kartini and Kartini as a source of historical and contemporary inspiration in Indonesia’.

Four panellists with a range of expertise on Kartini, Indonesian women’s movement, Javanese traditions, gender and Islam offered their reflections on the film and its treatment of issues of gender and women’s issues in Indonesia. Speaking at the event were: Dr Joost Cote, Senior Research Fellow (History) in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University; Dr Helen Pausacker, Deputy Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne Law School; Dr Dina Afrianty, postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society (IRPS) at the Australian Catholic University; and PhD candidate Hani Yulindrasari, whose research focuses on masculinities in early childhood education in Indonesia. Edited excerpts of their key insights are presented here.


Helen Pausacker
The film portrays the patriarchal and highly stratified nature of Javanese culture in the late nineteenth century, displaying several customs and traditions that oppressed women. In doing so, the film is reasonably faithful to Kartini’s diaries.

The first of these oppressive customs was pingitan, the custom of secluding women after their first menstruation until they were married. While some elite Javanese women received primary education, this would cease on pingitan. Kartini was from a more ‘progressive’ family than many at the time and was allowed to continue her education with a private teacher, until she and her sisters were eventually released from pingitan.

Another oppressive institution portrayed was polygamy. The film depicted the great difference in status between the noble wife (the Raden Ayu) and the others. The film also showed that while this primarily oppressed women, men also experienced the weight of societal expectation, albeit less than women. Kartini’s father, for example, had first married Kartini’s birth mother but was pressured into marrying a woman with a higher status as his Raden Ayu, when he rose in rank.

The hierarchy of both class and age in Javanese society at the time was also demonstrated through the practices of laku dodok (squatting walk) and sembah (raising hands in front of face in a prayer-like gesture), both of which demonstrate respect for a superior. By interspersing Javanese with Indonesian in the film, the film was also able to demonstrate the hierarchical relationships, even between siblings, with High Javanese being spoken to older people or those of higher status. The film also shows how Kartini rebelled against this in her relationships with her own younger siblings.

Dina Afrianty
Kartini’s messages are still relevant for contemporary women’s activism in Indonesia. The film depicts Kartini’s inspiration for fighting for equality as originating largely from interactions with her brother who studied in the Netherlands, and her connection with her father’s Dutch friends. Much like Kartini, Indonesian feminist activism has drawn inspiration from global women’s movements.

The film shows us that apart from her exposure to western culture, Kartini learned that Islamic teachings do not discriminate against women, as men and women are equally required to acquire knowledge. As a child, she rebelled and refused to take part in Qur’an classes. The film shows her learning from a visiting Islamic scholar that both boys and girls are required to read the Qur’an and importantly, all Muslims must understand its real message.

Polygamy is a topic of particular importance in Indonesian women’s struggle for justice and equality. The fact that Kartini felt obligated to follow her parents’ wishes and marry a man who already had three wives, is used in this film and by women’s activists to inspire women to fight against polygamy. Moderate Muslim scholars and women’s activists have challenged the way the verses of the Qur’an are used to justify polygamy.

In recent years, however, with the rise of religious conservatism, we see this story being used for a different purpose. The story of Kartini as a fourth wife and the daughter of a polygamous father is used by conservatives to justify and promote polygamy. Even Kartini, who was smart and independent and fought for emancipation, they argue, ended up living in a polygamous marriage. Conservatives have used the story of Kartini to criticise women’s activism, claiming that Kartini was an exemplary pious Muslim woman because she followed the path of Muhammad’s wives, who accepted living in a polygamous marriage.

Hani Yulindrasari
The film depicts the traditional versions of masculinity and femininity of the Javanese aristocratic class (priyayi), with rituals and rules about how to speak, behave and interact with others according to class and gender. Although the film shows Kartini performing key elements of priyayi femininity (such as laku dodok), it also shows her challenging tradition.

Kartini sits cross-legged, climbs a ladder, and laughs out loud. This is male-type behaviour, free of the constraints traditionally imposed on priyayi women. Kartini also subtly negotiates and challenges the tradition of pingitan (seclusion), including through her writings, eventually convincing her father to allow her and her sisters to emerge into the outside world.

The film also shows how hegemonic masculinity limits men as well as women. Kartini’s father is shown having to reluctantly participate in polygamy by marrying his noble wife to preserve power in the family line. The film also shows how Kartini’s brothers, first Sosrokartono and eventually her oldest brother Busono, come to respect her views and give up their male power. Even her husband-to-be, while remaining polygamous, at least comes to accept Kartini’s list of conditions.

While women have vastly improved access to education and economic and political resources today compared to Kartini’s time, they must still submit to dominant norms of femininity. At the same time, new constructions of femininity projecting women as strong, educated, powerful and successful, both in family and career, bring new pressures to contemporary Indonesian women. Like Kartini, women in Indonesia are continuously struggling to achieve their aspirations and dreams, in negotiation with the demands of ideal femininity. Like Kartini’s father and older brothers, Indonesian men also need to challenge and negotiate the idea of hegemonic masculinity in pursuit of gender equality.

Joost Coté
The film is a fresh look at this important historical figure in Indonesian history, providing audiences with a believable insight into how each member of this Javanese priyayi family might have responded to the challenges Kartini introduced. Central to Hanung’s sensitive interpretation is the issue also central in Kartini’s correspondence: polygamy, and the tradition-defined future then available to women of her class, which Kartini challenged. This dramatically refocuses the conventional emphasis on her association with education, which is only briefly, and in terms of historical chronology, incorrectly, referred to in the film.

Among the historical ‘facts’ highlighted in the film was Kartini’s work with Jepara woodcraftsmen. Her role as intermediary between craftsmen and European enthusiasts contributed to bringing Kartini to European attention. Equally interesting, is the attention in the film given to the publication of Kartini’s major ethnographic article – and hints concerning her other publications.

Another less-often discussed historical aspect that was highlighted in the film was the responses of her brothers, Sosrokartono and Busono, and her older sister Sulastri. The latter two were traditionalists who eventually came to accept Kartini’s progressive views. Kartono, while an important influence, did not introduce Kartini to Dutch feminist literature. That first came from the wife of the local Dutch colonial official, and later also through other European feminist correspondents.

Further, there is also no historical evidence that Kartini specifically spoke to an Islamic scholar in the terms portrayed in the film: what is clear from her correspondence, however is that Kartini did come to reconcile herself with a modernising Islam after rebelling against her traditional Islamic education as a child.

Given how the director shapes the film to work toward a climax – Kartini’s betrothal to a polygamous widower – the emphasis the film gives to the set of conditions Kartini sets down before agreeing to the marriage, with the approval of her father, is an important one. This is (almost) as reported in the correspondence, except that the film version does not include the condition that she would be allowed to continue studying. Perhaps because it would muddy the perfect narrative, the director has chosen to omit the last year of Kartini’s life and her tragic death following childbirth.

This historical nit-picking, however, should not detract from this excellent piece of cinema, which hopefully will encourage viewers to refresh their appreciation of this brave and inspiring woman.

This piece is an edited summary of an article originally published on Inside Indonesia on 21 July.