Ibu Kartini: pioneer of women’s emancipation

Last week, on the 21st of April, it was Hari Kartini here in Indonesia. Kartini day. I wrote a piece on Ibu Kartini I while ago but didn’t find the right moment to share it with you. The reason I wrote about ibu Kartini is that I watched Kartini the Princes of Java, an Indonesian movie about Rajen Ayu Kartini on Netflix. You may wonder Ibu Kartini? Who was she? Let me tell you about her.

Raden Adjeng Kartini was a particularly important woman in the history of Indonesia. Born in 1879, in Jepara, she fought for female rights and education in Indonesia from an incredibly young age. She was a feminist pioneer, born into an aristocratic family. Her father was the regent of Jepara and Kartini was his fifth child, second-oldest daughter. Besides her fight for women’s emancipation, Kartini also had an important role in the growing popularity of the wood carving craft in Jepara. Nowadays, Jepara is not only the city from where the boat to Karimunjawa departures, but it’s also worldwide famous for its wood carving craft and wooden furniture.

To put all of this in time perspective, she was five years older than my great-grandmother, who later moved to Indonesia herself. I am very inspired and feel very much connected to Ibu Kartini’s story and watching the movie reminded me again how amazing it is what she did. Especially at the time, she lived in.

Raden Adjeng

Raden Adjeng is a title given to married women in the noble class. Holders of these titles were almost always connected to a specific function. Kartini’s family was an aristocratic Javanese family during the Dutch colonial area (Dutch East Indies), as her father was the regent of Jepara. Due to his connections, Kartini’s father could allow his daughter to go to a Dutch-language primary school until the age of twelve. This did not only give her the rare opportunity to learn Dutch, but it also opened her eyes to Western ideals. However, starting from the age of twelve she entered the stage of seclusion which meant that she was not allowed to leave the house until she got married. This was common for young Javanese noble girls at that time and age.

Time of seclusion

Kartini struggled a lot with adapting to this lifestyle, she aspired to follow further education but instead was bound to follow the Javanese tradition, much valued in her family, to married life. However, her father was much more lenient and eager to listen to his daughter’s aspirations. Stories describe her being the apple of his eye. He decided to give her permission to continue studying books, write letters, follow embroidery lessons, and, later on, even occasional appearances in public for special events. During this time, she came in to contact with a regent’s wife Mrs. Marie Ovink-Soer, she shared many of her thoughts with Kartini and may have planted the early seats of Kartini’s modern mindset. Later on, she came into contact with even more officials and influential people. Through books, newspapers, and European magazines Kartini became more and more passionate about improving the living conditions of local Indonesian women, who then had the very lowest of social status. She saw and recognized their struggle of gaining freedom, autonomy, legal equality, and more.


Her father proposed marriage with the regent of Rembang in 1903. He was 26 years older, had three wives and 12 children. Although Kartini was hesitant to adapt to the seclusion, she agreed on getting married but not before first declining the proposal, because her husband surprisingly approved of Kartini continuing to spread her ideology and representing the young women of Indonesia. Just before getting married, Kartini was offered a scholarship abroad but sadly her father’s plan threw that dream right out of the window. Some say that she declined the scholarship because according to Javanese tradition, being 24 she is almost too old to expect to get married well.

Kartini School

After getting married, her dream of starting her own school for Javanese girls came through with help of the Dutch government. The doors of the first Indonesian primary school for native girls, without discrimination based on social class, opened in 1903. She taught girls a modern and Western-based curriculum while intending to empower and enlighten them. As she wished to be equal to European women, in her letters she argued against the Javanese traditions that hold young females from having freedom and pursuing education because they were forest to get married at a young age.

Death and legacy

In 1904 Kartini tragically died of complications, at the age of 25, days after giving birth to her first child. Not only her sisters continued advocating for girls’ educations, but the R.A. Kartini Foundation was also established to build Kartini’s schools. First in Semarang and later all over Indonesia. In 1964 President Sukarno created Kartini Day on her birthday on the 21st of April. Seven years after her death, her letters were shared in a Dutch magazine and later as the novel: Out of Darkness to Light.

An inspiring story that shows that young women are equally capable of achieving great things as long as they truly believe in that what they try to accomplish and most of all believe in themselves. Some real Monday motivation don’t you think? Talk to you soon!