Kartini and The Question of “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?”

 

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Kartini, in the middle, with her younge sister Kardinah, and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (Dereisnaar)

 

One of the most interesting people that I know is R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879- September 17, 1904), a young ambitious and brilliant Javanese woman who contributed and shaped Indonesian history, especially in the early twentieth century, because of her relentless dedication to elevate the status of women in her society.

Kartini was born into a high-class family in a small town on the north coast of Java island. Despite the immense privilege that her family possessed, her time was hard and challenging. It was the time when women’s status was reduced to a fertile uterus and kitchen. The effects of Dutch colonization were deeply inhuman and evoking a sense of opposition in her spirit. Moreover, Kartini was uneasy with the way the Javanese behaved. They were lazy and only glorified prayers and spirit offerings to improve their conditions of life. Perhaps, the most devastating thing that happened to her life was when she had to be withdrawn from her school by her family to obey to her Javanese tradition. Around this time, girls of high nobility family, were excluded from outsiders to prepare them for an early arranged marriage.

These things made her heart broken. She turned to reading as an escape from her bleak reality and a way to stimulate her curiosity. Not only was she a voracious reader, but she’s also a prolific letter writer. Kartini wrote letters to unpack everything she observed, both in her internal and external life, mostly to her Dutch friends, in Dutch. After she died, her letters were posthumously compiled and published in a book titled “Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light)” in 1911, and then later translated in English by Agnes Louise Symmers as “Letters of a Javanese Princess.”

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My left hand holding “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

In the book, there is one letter that was written to her friend, Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, in 1900, that has left a profound mark on my mind.

The letter begins with a story of Kartini who asked her Dutch friend named Letsy to play with her at recess. Letsy, who at the time was reading a book, politely declined the invitation because she had to study the book in preparation for an exam. She did not want to fail the exam, and she said that she had to be smart because one day she’d like to be a teacher. When Letsy curiously asked Kartini what she would like to be in the future, Kartini innocently replied, “I don’t know.” The question startled her. Kartini stood in disbelief, unable to articulate her answer. It was a strange question for her because nobody had asked her this question before. And perhaps, devastatingly, she lived in an era when her society did not believe that women were capable of thinking and dreaming big.

Right after Kartini was asked the question, she sprinted to her house, still haunted by Letsy’s question. When her brother frankly told her that she’d naturally be a Raden Ayu in the future (a Javanese married woman of high rank), Kartini realized that her fate was already shaped by her society without her will. Being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent.

Though she eventually married to a man that was carefully chosen for her, Kartini refused to live her life like most of Javanese married women who were submissive and expressionless. The older she got, the more passionate she became with the issues of women’s rights. Even, she erected a small school for young girls with her sisters. She was not only a teacher who taught them writing, reading, handiwork, cooking, and art, but also, she became their mother who taught them about love and life.

A century after she died, even when Indonesia has become more modernized than her time, some of us still think that this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is challenging. It’s a big question, but at its core, it invites us to define our own dreams vividly.

Defining our dreams means refusing our parents, lovers, neighbors, and even politicians to shape them. Defining our own dreams means avoiding shallow work and embracing any future obstacles as a learning process. This also means planting ourselves in the soil of optimism and solid work.

James Baldwin, an American writer once said, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”  Just like Baldwin, Kartini refused to let her world to define and dictate her dreams. She told her world how she and other women would like to be treated. She didn’t live in somebody else’s dreams. She made her own dreams.

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