Manipulation of Kartini Symbol Must End


“I have thought a lot about what people say: Live happily! […] People don’t want to see the naked truth. They turn away revolted from reality […] Earlier today, we were so shaken and moved by an example of the suffering in life […]” ( Kartini’s letter to Mrs. Abendanon-Mandri, April 8, 1902 ).

In the early 20th century, a woman not yet 20 years old, named Kartini, thought a lot about the people of her time, especially women.

Not long ago came the sad news on the death of a young woman from a village in the West Java regency of Karawang, a 29-year-old dangdut singer named Irma Bule, who left behind three children.

She died after being bitten by a poisonous snake during a performance. Irma Bule worked hard, singing from village to village, with a snake as a gimmick.

It appears she used the snake, not only as an extra attraction to her performance, but also to keep audience members, usually men, at bay.

Irma represents most Indonesian women. Hundreds of thousands of young women travel overseas to work as domestic workers without adequate protection from sexual and physical abuse and extreme exploitation. Irma was also the other face of the domestic helpers or maids in Indonesia who have no rights as workers but rely only on their employers’ benevolence.

As an activist working with maids and their families for several years, I have seen the horrors they suffer: rejected by hospitals because they had no money, scarred for life by the cruelty of employers, sources of profit for the hordes of “agents” shipping them overseas.

Then there are the thousands working for a pittance at malls, hotels, cafes and beauty salons.

Hundreds of thousands more work long shifts in factories on a paltry minimum wage — if they are lucky — and also often face sexual harassment.

I witnessed close the lines of aching backs and fingers of hundreds of young women slaving for less than the minimum wage in factories on the edge of Jakarta, on so-called “long shifts”, scared even of asking permission to go to the toilet.

Kartini Day celebrations are meaningless […] if Irma Bule is ignored.

And many, like Irma, end up forced into the dark alleys of prostitution and even become victims of trafficking.

That is the fate of most women in the real Indonesia. The feminism that focuses only on a slogan demanding “the freedom to be me” won’t resonate among that majority.

The freedom they seek is from structural abuse and exploitation, from poverty and sexism that poverty, and the exhaustion it can cause, forces them to endure. I do not mean to be pessimistic about the future of Indonesian women. However, real change will only happen if we face reality honestly.

Kartini was designated a national hero by Sukarno in 1964. Since then, every April 21, Kartini’s birthday, the country is invited to celebrate the “the success” of Indonesian women.

In celebrations, women and girls are paraded in a kebaya blouse, their hair in a sanggul or traditional bun, or they join competitions like cooking. Today, there are often also fashion shows or discounts at malls for those women with the money to enjoy consumerism.

But who was Kartini and what did she think? Indonesian men and women living under the New Order regime know little about her.

The beautiful and sharp writings of this heroine are still not taught at school with any seriousness, just as the real, everyday work and social situation of most women is never seriously discussed.

Any idealization of Kartini, without adequate discussion of what she struggled for, collides with everyday reality, as experienced by Irma Bule and by the hundreds of thousands of women migrant workers and the tens of millions of others living in poverty or just above it.

But why are they absent from public conversation?

Or where they are present, they are used for distorted symbolic purposes. The National Awakening Party ( PAN ) recently elevated another dangdut singer, Zaskia Gotik, as their ambassador to promote the state ideology of Pancasila.

Then the Defense Ministry, not wanting to be outdone, appointed her as a doctor for the so-called Pancasila Clinic. Zaskia is renowned for two things. One was her “sexy duck wiggle” which has catapulted her to fame and earned her celebrity status. The other was her notoriety after answering a question on Pancasila saucily, incurring criticism for being disrespectful. Asked about the symbol on the national emblem representing the fifth principle of social justice, she answered “a duck bending over”.

The correct answer is a picture of rice and cotton.

Politicians and state officials are easily smitten with the popularity of a celebrity ( usually female ones ) who they then make spokespersons on important issues. It is the gimmick of hypocrisy.

Kartini Day celebrations are meaningless if the real situation of most women is not addressed, if Irma Bule is ignored.

Such celebrations will only turn into hypocrisy when most women are still entangled in poverty, when they face great risks of death during childbirth due to lack of nutrition and a lack of access to health care.

Also, the actual words and ideas of Kartini must be made available, especially to women and young people. It would not at all be beyond the government’s means to reprint on a massive scale Kartini’s collection of letters titled Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang ( Out of darkness into light ) and distribute the collection to all schools and sell it cheaply in bookshops.

The manipulation of Kartini and of women as a symbol must end. The real Kartini must be studied. The real life of the majority of women must be understood.

Perhaps getting the state to help achieve Article Five of Pancasila, namely social justice for all the Indonesian people, including women, is going to need us, women and men, to act together.

The writer is a playwright, a theater producer and director and the founder of Institut Ungu ( Purple Institute, Women’s Art and Cultural Space ).