R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879–September 17, 1904) had a lasting and an enormous impact in championing women’s rights in Indonesia, especially for her own tribe, the Javanese. At the time when the Dutch colonial system had enveloped Indonesia for more than two centuries, the Dutch looked down the Javanese and regarded them as an inferior race. Women had a very limited option to stretch their fate beyond being obedient and submissive housewives. A few Javanese girls had an access to go to school but mostly only those who were of exceedingly high status, and willing to learn Dutch (Kartini, interestingly, was born into an aristocratic family and spoke and wrote Dutch impeccably). The rest of the people were living under illness, poverty, and heavy mysticism. Kartini had to be withdrawn from school into her own culture when she was twelve and a half years old to take on her prescribed role as a noble Javanese girl. She was being a prisoner in her own house, out of sight of everyone but her closest family, to be in readiness for someone who might ask her father to marry her.
All of those unfortunate circumstances did break her heart but from that she discovered her inner strength. Though her formal schooling abruptly ended, she was not finished with her own education. With the generous support from her beloved father, a regent in one of the towns in eastern Java, and polymath brother named Kartono, Kartini was able to construct her own style of education by excessively reading Western literature and penning letters in Dutch to her Dutch friends. Her letters vocalized her longing to be an independent and intellectual woman, and to see the Javanese women being treated equally and intelligently. She and her letters were inseparable. More than a mere tool of self-expression, Kartini’s letters allow us to travel back to her confined but courageous life as a young Javanese woman living in the transition of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in the land of Java, Indonesia.
In 1904, she died very young, only twenty-five years old, four days after her only son was born named Soesalit. A few attempts had done to compile and translate her letters into a book. One of which is this old-forgotten book that I had read titled Letters of a Javanese Princess (Public Library), translated into English from Dutch by Agnes Louise Symmers. This book contains everything from her thoughts on marriage (she was clearly against a forced marriage which was pervasive at the time), religion, education, women’s rights, humans’ sufferings, Javanese arts, and most importantly, her unflinching search for her self, for a meaningful and a viable life.
Buried deep in her letters, once in a while, I came upon some entries in which she described her Javanese traditions to her Dutch friends. Here I gathered some of the most compelling descriptions of the Javanese culture through Kartini’s point of view.
On November 20th, 1901, she wrote a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri about a popular belief in Java that said someone who couldn’t keep his or her promise would eventually be visited by a dangerous snake:
“There is a belief among us Javanese, that those who break a promise will be visited by a poisonous serpent. The serpent comes to remind them of their promise, if they do not quickly fulfill it, they will be visited by another more venomous serpent, whose bite is deadly. If they delay longer, misfortune will surely overtake them. The serpent only lives upon the promises of holy spirits, as the souls of the righteous who are dead are nourished by flowers, perfume, and incense. The serpent is sent by the departed souls of the righteous to remind men of their forgotten promises.”
Javanese Traditional Masks. Via: (NYPL)
The Javanese are a superstitious people fond of myths and fairy tales. In an entry from March 5th, 1902, a 23-year-old Kartini wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, one of her Dutch friends:
“It was most difficult to take a photograph in the kampong [village]. A superstition says that one shortens one’s own life when one allows a photograph to be taken, and that a photographer is a great sinner; all the portraits that he makes will demand their lives of him in the afterlife.”
A girl wearing a traditional Javanese costume. 1938. Via: (NYPL)
Written to Stella Zeehandelaar*, her beloved radical feminist Dutch friend whom Kartini never met, on August 18th, 1899, Kartini lamented the rigidness of her Javanese traditional culture:
“I have always been an enemy of formality. I am happy only when I can throw the burden of Javanese etiquette from my shoulders. The ceremonies, the little rules, that are instilled into our people are an abomination to me. You could hardly imagine how heavily the burden of etiquette process upon a Javanese aristocratic household. But in our household, we do not take all the formalities so literally.
Javanese etiquette is both silly and terrible. Europeans who live years in India*, and who come in close contact with our native dignitaries, cannot at all understand it unless they have made a special study of it.
In order to give you a faint idea of the oppressiveness of our etiquette, I shall mention a few examples. A younger brother or sister of mine may not pass me without bowing down to the ground and creeping upon hands and knees. If a little sister is sitting on a chair, she must instantly slip to the ground and remain with head bowed until I have passed from her sight. If a younger brother or sister wishes to speak to me, it must only be in high Javanese*; and after each sentence that comes from their lips, they must make a sembah; that is, to put both hands together, and bring the thumbs under the nose […]
They are [Kartini’s little brothers and sisters] forbidden to touch my honorable head without my high permission, and they may not do it even then without first making a sembah.
Should you speak against your superiors, do it softly, so that only those who are near may hear. When a young lady laughs, she must not open her mouth. (For heaven’s sake! I hear you exclaim). Yes, dear Stella, you shall hear stranger things than these, if you wish to know about us Javanese.
If a girl runs, she must do it decorously, with little mincing steps and oh, so slowly, like a snail. To run just a little fast is to be a hoyden.”
Marriage Procession in Java. ca. 1862. Via: (NYPL)
On the Javanese traditional wedding, written to Mevrouw de booij-boissevain, on March 29th, 1902, after having celebrated her sister’s wedding, Kartini wrote:
“A native marriage entails a heavy burden upon the family of the bride. Days and weeks beforehand, the preparations for the solemnity are begun. Sister’s wedding was celebrated very quietly on account of a death in the family.
The Javanese give presents at a marriage; things to wear such as kains [clothing material], stomachers, headdresses, silk for kebajas [kebaja is a traditional Javanese outfit for women], cloth for jackets; and also things to eat, such as rice, eggs, chickens, or a buffalo. These are merely meant as marks of good will.
When a buffalo is killed at the time of a wedding—and usually more than one is needed for the feast meals—a bamboo vessel filled with sirih [the betel leaves], little cakes, pinang nuts, and pieces of meat must be mixed with the running blood of the slaughtered buffalo. These vessels, covered with flowers, are laid at all of the crossroads, bridges, and wells on the estate, as an offering to the spirits who dwell there. If these bridge, road, and water spirits are not propitiated, they will be offended at the festivities, and misfortune will come of it. That is the belief of the people. Its origin I do not know.”
India*: Until 1949, five years after Indonesia had gained its independence from the Dutch, Indonesia was known as the Netherlands East Indies, Dutch India, Netherlands India, and simply called India. India in this letter means Indonesia.
High Javanese*: The Javanese language has different distinct levels. High Javanese is being used to address someone who is higher in status, age, education, and occupation such as: parents, grandparents, professors, and those who possess nobler blood. In return, these people will speak “low Javanese” for whoever they think are lower than their personal status. “Middle” level Javanese is often being spoken by peasants or peers who are in the same level for intermediate social situations. There is also a “very-high” level of the Javanese language which is heard only in the royal court. Each level of the Javanese language uses a very different vocabulary that most non-Javanese speakers would think that they hear different languages being uttered.
Stella Zeehandelaar*: Stella came to know Kartini after she came upon her advertisement in De Hollandsche Lelie (the Dutch women’s magazine), inviting someone to correspond with her from Indonesia. Stella responded the ads and wrote to her frequently, infusing Kartini’s hunger mind with some western perspectives that slowly shaped her liberal ideas.
Some of the vintage pictures displaying Javanese culture that I found on New York Public Library Digital Collections:
Girl from Java by Charlton B Perkins (Photographer). 1909. Via: (NYPL)
Three dance poses. Dancer: Bagong Kussudiardjo. Via: (NYPL)
Part of the gamelan at the court of H. H. Mangkunagara of Surakarta. Via: (NYPL)
Wayang Kulit (used for shadow plays) in Central Java. Via: (NYPL)
Dancer with gamelan orchestra at Garut, Java, ca. 1921. Via: (NYPL)
A Surakarta style dance. A female dancer playing a refined male character. Via: (NYPL)