I, like the rest of Indonesia, grew up with the story of R.A. Kartini, the Javanese Princess, who is a pioneer in the area of education for native Indonesian women and for womens rights in Indonesia. Her birthday has been named a national holiday to serve as a reminder for women to participate in the development of the country. On this day, we can expect many kinds of celebrations, in the great name of Kartini. However, the celebrations that I see closest around me involve children parading around in traditional costumes (including the unusually built up traffic particularly around school areas that comes with it) and brands capitalizing on the moment to increase customer traffic by offering attractive promotions for women; still in the name of the national heroine.
I never really gave Kartini and her work much thought. I always assumed it was about women empowerment that obviously nothing to do with me. But yesterday, I received an e-newsletter from a local coffee brand that invited customers, women in particular, to wear your Kebaya and get a free drink – valid only on Kartini Day! . It made me think, is this all there is to celebrate the birth of a national heroine – free coffee and national cos-play day? Surely, there must be more!
So, I re-read Kartini’s story. I read what history said about her. I read about how she, after having learned to write in Dutch, corresponded with her Dutch friends through letters during her seclusion period in preparation to be married. She was twelve at that time. I read about the things she told her Dutch pen pals, about her thoughts on the Javanese culture that imposed obstacles for the development of women and about the struggle women faced to obtain freedom. Basically, I read about the things I have learned since I was still in middle school.
Imagine being her. In the 1880’s, when she lived, women weren’t allowed to study. They had to be secluded, they needed to be ready to marry men they didn’t even know, and to be okay with being a third, maybe even a fourth wife, at the age of 12. She couldn’t have done much, but still she chose to pen her thoughts in letters to her friends (or maybe, pen pals) in the Netherlands. In it, she talked about how she envied how European women think and about her dreams to see the empowerment of native Indonesian people, women especially, through education and for women to be free to make their own choices for their lives.
Kartini wrote letters. Yes, that’s what she did. She wrote down her thoughts in letters and shared it with her friends. I think that at that time, she never imagined that long after her death, those letters will be published in a book that started a movement for the elevated status of the women in Indonesia. Although she never picked up a weapon or laid her life for her country in a fight against colonisers, she had as big an impact on the freedom of her country.
She had an impact. She is named a national heroine because she changed the way people think. Her letters, which contained her thoughts, took the status of women in Indonesia to the next level.
If there’s a lesson I can draw from Kartini, it’s this: To make an impact, we don’t need dramatic gestures in big scales. We can make an impact with what is already in us. Our thoughts, our talents, our skills whatever we need to make an impact is already inside of us.
I believe that this doesn’t just go out to women. This goes out to each and every one of us, women AND men, because everyone of us can have an impact; for our generation, for the next generation, for our country, for the world. More than the parades of traditional costumes and the free coffee we can claim today, the celebration of Kartini Day should remind us – all of us – that every one of us have the capabilities to have an impact; that everyone of us can be heroes.
But hey, if there’s still free coffee to claim, by all means, go for it! Happy Kartini Day to all of us.